Review: Sacha Baron Cohen hits comedy rock bottom in the awful ‘Brothers Grimsby’

Sacha Baron Cohen is a very smart, very funny man. One of the best parts of his publicity tour for The Brothers Grimsby has been hearing him give interviews out of character about his process when working on Da Ali G Show, Borat, and Bruno. The worst part of it, unfortunately, is the movie The Brothers Grimsby, which is an entirely laughless affair and easily the low point of Cohen's career so far.

No one is more shocked by my reaction to the movie than I am. I am an easy laugh. I'll admit it. I am predisposed to laughter. That's my natural state, my preferred condition. I love comedy. I love all forms of comedy. I love cerebral wordplay. I love silly physical slapstick. I love the gross. I love the esoteric. If you search through my collection, you'll find all kinds of things, and I love that. Every now and then, though, someone will take a big swing and miss completely, and it's almost fascinating to see what a total whiff The Brothers Grimsby is. From foundation to frosting, the entire thing is off, and the result is one of the most difficult sits I've had in a while. I didn't just sit without laughing; I found myself actively hating every choice, every new scene. It's miraculously bad. It is a case study in getting everything wrong, to such a degree that I have to think it's just a one-off. Nobody as talented as Cohen misses as completely as this unless they're really, really trying. Whatever else I might say about the film, I don't think Cohen was indifferent about it or phoning it in. He's trying as hard as he can here, which is part of what made me cringe.

Louis Leterrier, a graduate of the Luc Besson School Of Ass-Kickery, is a solid action filmmaker. I like his movies in general. They're fine. They're fun. But I think it's safe to say that comedy is not his strong suit. Even if I didn't hate the script by Cohen & Phil Johnston and Peter Baynham, Leterrier ham-hands the execution in a way that is impossible to get past. Comedy is like music, dependent on rhythm as much as anything else, and Leterrier is tone-deaf. Scene after scene after scene, it's hard to be sure he even understands what the joke is. Considering this is ostensibly an action-comedy, I thought maybe it would be fun to see a Sacha Baron Cohen character appear in what would otherwise be a straight action movie. But that's not what this is. Even though they throw a lot of energy at one action scene in the film's opening moments, every other action scene in the film is a bust. There's also a running thread in the movie in which we keep flashing back to the childhood of Nobby Butcher (Cohen) and Sebastien Butcher (Mark Strong), and Leterrier leans so hard on empty sentiment that it gets gross after a while. It turns into pure treacle, phony and out of place considering how little the rest of the film is sincere about anything. You can't have it both ways. You can't ask me to actually care about the relationship between two brothers and a trauma that defined them in childhood and accept the grotesque cartoon reality of this world at the same time.

Oh, did I mention grotesque? There's no way to talk about this movie critically without discussing how it stages set pieces, and there's no way to talk about these set pieces without describing some very explicit sexual situations. So if you're easily offended, skip to the end of this review. And I know this sounds like I'm saying I was offended, but that's not it. I was bored by how lazy the “offense” was. I thought it all felt like the cheapest, easiest version of each scene. How old is the “you have to suck the poison out” joke overall? Just because you push it further and end up with Mark Strong teabagging Sacha Baron Cohen in graphic detail doesn't make it any less tired of a joke. For really outrageous material to work, it's all about the set-up and the context. I'll go with almost anything if it's set up correctly. Scenes just start here with no real motivation or purpose, and the biggest comic set piece in the movie was the breaking point for me. It's the moment I checked out completely. Nobby and Seb are running from some bad guys and, forced to hide, they decide to both climb into an elephant's vagina. But wait! There's more! Once they're inside the elephant's vagina, another elephant decides to mount that first elephant, and the two of them are forced to avoid the elephant's penis. Worried they'll be caught, they decide to help the elephant ejaculate quicker by stroking it until it finishes all over Mark Strong. Hold on, though! There's even more! Because there's another elephant after that, and this time when it finishes, most of it is in Nobby's backside. And then, get this, there's still more! Because there's a whole line of elephants that are waiting for their turn at mounting the exact same elephant that they're hiding inside.

And then they climb out and the movie continues and I just couldn't even pretend to care what happened. That entire sequence was just desperate, sweaty failure, and when I watch Cohen make the rounds on talk shows and repeatedly hear him talk about how this is a film about UK class distinctions and wage inequality, I find it really disingenuous. Again, they may pay a little lip service to that idea in the last few minutes of the movie, but it's such a wedged in idea that they can't believe they're really dealing with it in any substantive way. A few jokes about how the scum is really the salt of the earth doesn't mean your film is “about” that. What made Borat and Bruno work is that they were both films that focused on very clear comic targets. Borat is like a bigot detector, while Bruno is designed to make homophobes squirm, and in both cases, the finished films represent all sorts of experimentation edited down into something that's very refined. The Brothers Grimsby is the opposite, and it makes me wonder if it's just a matter of process. Maybe Cohen's skills aren't suited to scripted studio comedy. He's a daredevil who's suddenly being asked to lead a nature walk, and he feels lost here. It is rare that I am embarrassed for the people I'm watching in a film, but that's the only way to describe the sort of quiet horror that kept washing over me in scene after scene after scene.

I could go on, but why? What else is there to say? I do not particularly care for the letter grade system in reviewing, but in a case like this, maybe it really is all summed up by giving the lowest grade I can give. If any film I've seen in a theater this year deserves an F, it's this one.

The Brothers Grimsby opens tomorrow.