They didn’t put on a press screening for Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy Grimsby. Critics were invited instead to the World Premiere, the distributor clearly hoping a bit of hype and zaniness (plus the sycophantic laughter of fans) might positively affect reviews.
For sure, Grimsby is a film you need to see with a baying audience, most likely drunk or high. In these special circumstances it might just work because it really isn’t very good, not by any stretch of the imagination, presenting Baron Cohen shorn of a really good character (Borat, Bruno, The Dictator) and looking short on ideas.
He plays Nobby, a pot bellied, England supporting chav from the titular trawler fishing port. The gags about working class scum aren’t all in terrible taste – there’s a hint of sympathy for the downtrodden underclass, but mainly , I’m afraid to say, it does come over as metropolitan sneering.
Nobby finally tracks down his long lost younger brother Seb (Mark Strong) who was adopted by a posh family at the age of 6 and has now become an elite spy for a rogue unit of MI6. As with many comedies unsure how to spin out their central idea (i.e., here, mismatched brothers) there’s a load of silly plot that’s not worth explaining, just that it involves a trip to South Africa to track down terrorists led by Penelope Cruz, and then a climax at the World Cup Final between England and Germany (yeah, right) in Santiago, Chile.
For a comedy there are a lot of action scenes (it’s directed with a chronic absence of wit, by Louis Leterrier – honestly, his Clash of the Titans was funnier) and a back sob story that’s given undue prominence in an already tight run time of 82 mins.
Basically, Grimsby could do with more jokes, more character. The gross-out stuff is, well, gross – sucking out poison from his brother’s unmentionable places, as well as a full-on safari session involving an elephant’s cock and ejaculant – and you have to take these extremes as they, er, come. I laughed a bit and, yes, was a bit miffed – outrage or offence would be way off mark – by the sheer ugliness and strain of going for these laughs.
I always admire grim commitment to a gag, though, but there are also a few tasteless AIDS jibes that never really work, basically because they’re too tame. If you’re doing an AIDS gag, you’d better make it worthwhile, otherwise it looks like a lapse of judgement or a loss of nerve. A gag on film is like in Masterchef: make it well, or don’t serve it up.
The thin veil of character-based humour might just about excuse any lazy homophobia, casual racism and rampant classism (such correctness always ruins comedy analysis, so I don’t mind a gross stereotype or two if done with good will), but amid the plethora of arse, dick, chav, cum, crack, slag references, it’s the lack of real smartness or a memorable routine that hampers Grimsby like a couple of ASBO tags.
Baron Cohen commits to the part, as usual, but Nobby lacks the comedian’s usual acuity of observation. He’s created a character but baulked at its full implications (he was, at one script stage, a football hooligan and most of that has been jettisoned, only a nasty aftertaste remaining) and not quite decided where he is, or who he is with Nobby.
He struggles with the accent, and with the physicality. No effort can really make Nobby sympathetic, but the star knows he must do so complete a generally tedious story arc about family and all sticking together, although it is an arc that does end with both brothers taking a firework up the bum for England.
There’s an abiding whiff here of a film being edited, recut, marketed, hyped and, as in the climactic football match featured in it, just about scraping over the line. But I think everyone, audiences and actors alike, will be glad if they never saw Nobby again.