In comedy, a couple good jokes cover a multitude of sins. The Brothers Grimsby has both.

It’s vulgar, violent, and vaguely offensive — and those are its good qualities. It’s also really dumb (both intentionally and unintentionally) with a story that appears to have been almost entirely discarded in the editing room to create a movie that rushes as quickly as possible from one gag to the next. (And in this movie, some of the gags are so gross, they actually might make you gag.) But there are still a few comic highlights, including one I’m ashamed to admit made me laugh as hard as I’ve ever laughed in a movie theater. The sequence (which I won’t spoil) ended and though the film moved on, I did not; for a good 10 to 15 seconds, I just kept right on cackling. I’m not proud of it; in fact, I’m kind of ashamed of myself for laughing so hard at something so disgusting, illogical, and downright stupid. But I did. I recall Richard Roeper’s succinct review of Jackass: The Movie: “God help me, thumbs up.”

The title refers to two orphans who were separated during childhood. Now grown to adulthood (physically, if not necessarily mentally), Nobby (co-writer Sacha Baron Cohen) spends his days drinking, cheering on England’s soccer team, fathering as many children as a TLC reality star, and obsessively searching for missing brother Sebastian (Mark Strong). By a random stroke of luck, another resident of Nobby’s working class town locates Sebastian, who now works as England’s greatest secret agent. (How did a drunken soccer hooligan manage to pinpoint both the identity and location of the world’s greatest secret agent, who should be pretty good at covering his tracks? The movie doesn’t say.)

That leads to a reunion right in the middle of Sebastian’s latest assignment protecting a wealthy industrialist (Penelope Cruz), which Nobby promptly botches, inadvertently framing his brother for attempted murder in the process. The two men must then go on the run to prove their innocence, find the actual bad guy (DTV action star Scott Adkins), and bring down an international criminal conspiracy.

Sebastian’s employed by some offshoot of MI6, but all we see of it is a single room with a lot of computer monitors where Ian McShane glowers and Isla Fisher feeds Sebastian a steady stream of useful exposition. (Baron Cohen and company apparently didn’t get the memo from Paul Feig’s Spy that the cliché of the female sidekick who sits around glumly looking at computers while the men get to have all the fun is a wee bit played out.) There’s also some kind of bad guy group called “Maelstrom,” but there’s maybe two lines in one scene dedicated to who they are and what they do. In other words, everything involving this espionage plot is totally hopeless.

Some of the humor falls flat too. There are so many cheap topical references that this movie is going to feel insanely dated before it hits basic cable, and a couple of the bigger comic setpieces completely misfire. (Poor Gabourey Sidibe.) The hit-to-miss ratio of the punchlines isn’t nearly on par with Baron Cohen’s own Borat or even Bruno (although it’s a little better than The Dictator). But then there are those goofs that do land — and hard.

At heart, Sacha Baron Cohen is as much provocateur as comedian, and he might love a good shock even more than he loves a good laugh. Since success stripped him of his ability to move anonymously among the population, he’s had to find more conventional ways to satisfy his urge to mess with people. In The Brothers Grimsby, that mostly means sex jokes that are way more graphic than in a typical mainstream comedy; expect to hear gasps of dismay at some of the lewder content. (Three words: Animal full frontal.) Some of this stuff is in such obviously poor taste that one wonders if the subjects of Baron Cohen’s latest hidden camera experiment are The Brothers Grimsby’s paying customers.

The action sequences, directed by Louis Leterrier (The TransporterNow You See Me), are halfway between an indictment of modern action’s overly aggressive editing style and the worst offender yet in modern action’s overly aggressive editing style. (They also utilize a lot of surprisingly cool first-person POV, so it’s fortunate this film opens before Hardcore Henry.) Leterrier keeps the pace brisk, at the expense of the story and any sense of emotional investment in the characters.

But does emotional investment matter in a movie where Sacha Baron Cohen uses his butt to defuse a bomb? Even when his material fails him, it’s hard not to admire Baron Cohen’s literal balls-out willingness to do anything for the audience’s pleasure (or, in some cases, bemused horror). The Brothers Grimsby isn’t as smart as Baron Cohen’s best work — only an extended riff on Nobby’s absolute delight at reckless gun ownership displays any of the brains of a Borat or Ali G Show  but it doesn’t play things safe either. (Neither does Mark Strong, whose willingness to keep up with Baron Cohen gross-out-for-gross-out is as impressive as it is unwise, at least for his future as a credible Hollywood villain.) There are jokes here about Bill Cosby and incest and pedophilia and real celebrities getting AIDS, all in the first 30 minutes. That doesn’t even include that one scene that made laugh so hard. Just thinking about it now made me smile again.

(Actually, I take it back. It’s Mark Strong who has his balls out, not Sacha Baron Cohen. The rest I stand by.)


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