Before you buy a ticket to The Brothers Grimsby, here’s an ethical test: How would you react if a gunman shot a wheelchair-bound orphan… already dying of AIDS… whose blood splattered into Daniel Radcliffe’s mouth and infected him, too?
If you’d applaud with joy at the deranged spectacle, you’re a monster. If you’d storm out, you’re a flawless soul. If you’d react like I did — a gasp, a groan, and then a guilty chuckle — here’s your diagnosis: You probably shouldn’t become pope, but boy, are you going enjoy hating yourself for giggling through Sacha Baron Cohen’s gleefully vile gross-out comedy.
Like last year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Brothers Grimsby is a spit-wad at U.K. classism embedded in a spy caper. Cohen plays Nobby, Britain’s lowest of the low, who combines the worst traits of his most infamous characters: Borat’s ignorance, Bruno’s horniness, and Ali G’s fashion sense and horrible facial hair. To English snobs, lads like Nobby are every American redneck stereotype doubled, including his three dumb patriotic tattoos and 11 doomed children, whom he and wife Dawn (Rebel Wilson) don’t so much raise as barely keep from dying. Chides Nobby to his chain-smoking fourth grader, “At your age, you should be vaping!”
Nobby’s hometown of Grimsby is so dismal that its sister city is Chernobyl. He’s a product of his environment. As proof, examine his estranged brother Sebastian (Mark Strong), who was raised by posh adoptive parents in London. After 28 years in civilization, he’s as suave as James Bond and as icy as the Queen. Thanks to his MI6 training, Sebastian can easily handle gun battles and poison. But when he’s dragged back to his shabby, working-class burg, we finally see Sebastian panic. Get me the hell out of here!, his eyes scream.
The Brothers Grimsby is defiantly stupid. Most of the jokes are bad. Some are offensively tone-deaf, like a bit where Nobby tries to seduce a maid (Gabourey Sidibe) he has mistaken for a sultry secret agent. Is the joke on him for thinking she’s sexy? Or on her for existing? The movie can’t even settle on a tone. Strong’s Sebastian is deadpan as hell, while Cohen plays Nobby like a hopping moron. Together, it’s like sticking Daniel Craig’s Bond in Austin Powers. The clash doesn’t highlight their strengths, it collapses entire scenes.
None of Grimsby’s jokes are clever. But none of them want to be. This is a film whose grand arc is a defense of scum. (Literally, it ends with people cheering, “Scum! Scum!”) Which enables director Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me) to make the movie equivalent of a middle finger tickling your armpit. He doesn’t just skate near the edge of good taste — he leaps off the cliff screaming, “Suck this!”
Yet I caught myself admiring Grimsby’s resolve. Yes, many of its gags are fueled by gay panic — but at least it’s not that coy, PG-13 bigotry that assumes audiences think it’s funny just seeing Adam Sandler and Kevin James hold hands. There’s nothing hilarious about aligning with homophobes; Grimsby is so extreme we can’t align with anyone. In an early scene, Nobby must slurp venom out of his brother’s testicles. Leterrier cuts to Nobby’s aghast, peeping friends — a typical ewwww-gross beat — and then goes further. He lingers over Sebastian’s testicle plopped on Nobby’s tear-stained cheek, splatters the screen with semen, and caps it with a traumatized Nobby shivering in the corner. The much-longer-than-you’d-expect scene is a cruelly pleasurable roller coaster. It’s a nauseating, scream-worthy risk. At the end, my theater exhaled. Then it burst into cackles. Grimsby’s balls — actual balls — broke our dignity. And there are jokes worse than that.
The title’s nod to famous fairy tale authors The Brothers Grimm sounds ironic, but it isn’t. The Brothers Grimm wrote X-rated shockers about incest, bestiality, and cannibalism. It took them seven editions and 45 years to finally publish a book for kids.
If anything, The Brothers Grimsby is cleaner — at least there’s no cannibalism. (Incest and bestiality, check.) Three hundred years later, we’re still fascinated by the same taboos. We’ve just gotten harder to shock. Instead of Hansel and Gretel stuffed inside an oven, we get Nobby and Sebastian stuffed inside an elephant’s vagina.
Will the saga of Nobby and Sebastian someday tuck children into bed, like its folk-tale predecessors? I hope not. But you’re forgiven for enjoying it today. For penance, as you leave the theater, feed a stranger’s parking meter, recycle a soda can, and give a homeless man a dollar. Then you’re allowed to buy a second ticket and go back in.