Freud would’ve had a field day with The Brothers Grimsby, the latest comic creation from professional prankster Sacha Baron Cohen. The fitfully funny, consistently disgusting new comedy would’ve provided rock-solid support for the noted psychoanalyst’s theory of five-stage psychosexual development, particularly the anal stage, wherein dysfunction could leave the child with personality defects later down the line. This is where the expression ‘anal-retentive’ comes from, referring to personalities fixated on order, authority, tidiness, and punctuality. On the flip side of this concept is the less-discussed anal-expulsive personality, characterized by disorganization, rebellion, and overall messiness — that’s Cohen, up and down. Somewhere between the firework-in-the-ass joke, the elephant phallus-in-the-ass joke, and the larger-firework-in-the-ass joke, Freud would’ve concluded that a cigar is not always just a cigar, and especially not when it’s shoved up a guy’s ass.
Orifices of all shapes and sizes take a serious pummeling in Grimsby‘s impossibly long 83 minutes, but penetrative humor constitutes but one small patch in this elaborate quilt of sophomoric gross-outs. Testicles are diligently suckled, a number-two is described in nauseatingly fine detail, and an ejaculate-facial of unthinkable proportions takes place in full view of director Louis Leterrier’s camera. At least repulsion-palooza Grimsby is consistently creative in the methods through which it alienates its audience, boldly going where few movies have dared to go before (and for good reason). Cohen has always taken pleasure in the base and perverse, but while the antics of Borat, Brüno and Ali G always served to expose the bigotry and hypocrisy resting one layer beneath a polite exterior in ordinary folks, this latest set of provocations has no loftier critical or satirical ambition. A rousing third-act monologue about the value of so-called “scum” in popular society might allow Cohen to believe he’s driving home a more urgent point about classism and discrimination (that, and the whole giving-Donald-Trump-AIDS business), but the remorseless campaign of sheer idiocy that precedes it robs it of its dramatic heft. Before he defends the non-elite, he gets in plenty of good potshots about how they’re all fat, drunk, inbred, welfare-check-cashing, heroin-injecting wastes of space. Cohen hasn’t lost his streak of social consciousness, only the means by which he can express it.
Cohen designs Nobby Butcher, an incorrigible football hooligan and one such fleck of scum, as another perpetually powered generator of ludicrous comic circumstances in the tradition of his earlier personae, the key difference being that Cohen is now holding all the cards. Controlling both sides of the conversation, and accordingly leaving unwitting participants out of it, should ostensibly make Cohen’s humor feel less mean-spirited, but it has the opposite effect. Care has gone into crafting the Nobby Butcher character: his matted hair and greasy sideburns, sweat-stained football polo, extra-long denim shorts and flimsy flip-flops all combine for a picture-perfect look, and yet it feels like Cohen enjoys seeing him suffer.
Grimsby might have been a rewrite or two away from inspired delirium, but imposing a numbingly typical globetrotting-espionage-thriller plot on this hurricane of stupidity critically diminishes any potential fun. The film is set in motion when Nobby ascertains the location of his long-lost baby bruv, a highly effective secret agent named Sebastian (Mark Strong), and compromises him by hugging him during a crucial sniper-shot that then goes rogue, killing a public health official. With nobody left to turn to — except for a character played by Cohen’s real-life wife Isla Fisher, the dullness and slightness of her role as secret agent tech-support / default love interest practically grounds for divorce — Sebastian and Nobby get off the grid and attempt to clear the good Butcher name together. Their adventures first bring them home to their profoundly shitty post-industrial wasteland of Grimsby, where Rebel Wilson gives Cohen a run for his money in terms of sheer commitment to filthiness as Nobby’s horndog wife. From there, they’re off to South Africa, where Academy Award nominee Gabourey Sidibe debases herself both with a unshy beav-shot and a generalized Afreekahn accent that saddens the audience by making them wonder just how badly she needed this job. The fourth actress appearing for a grand total of five minutes to deliver about 20 lines is Academy Award winner Penelope Cruz, as the leader of a global-health non-profit who may have ulterior motives.
But the paint-by-numbers plot still can’t diminish the shocks in the more stomach-churning set pieces, shocks for shock’s sake they may be. If your only desire as a moviegoer is to feel something, anything, then Cohen’s nearly-hostile intentness on being stickier, smellier, and crasser than anyone else in wide release might get your blood pumping. (Perhaps it’s a minor achievement, and more effective statement of social subversion than anything found within Grimsby, that Cohen got bona fide studios to finance his John Waters-level flights of gross fancy.) And even in that case, the scant laughs aren’t worth the sore ass you’ll feel in the morning.