Director: Louis Leterrier
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson, Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane
Watch Grimsby online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
One of the funniest moments in Grimsby comes when Sacha Baron Cohen’s witless hero, Nobby Butcher, picks up a gun and starts indiscriminately shooting bad guys, allies and animals alike. “I can see why you like this,” he raves to his long lost super-spy brother Sebastian (Strong). “It completely detaches you from the guilt of your actions.”
Taking aim at the upper-class antics of Daniel Craig and other Bonds, this is as close to cutting commentary as the film gets, because it’s otherwise shockingly detached in its satire of British social politics. At the front and centre is Nobby, a football hooligan with 11 children and no desire to get a job. He’s a deliberate caricature of the cast of Benefits Street, right out of the worst fever dreams of Daily Mail readers.
Nobby has been separated from Sebastian for 28 years and is surprised to discover that he has become one of MI6’s top agents. After a calamitous reunion at a world peace conference, the pair go on the run from both the authorities and a gang of assassins, in a globe-trotting journey that takes them from their titular home town to the World Cup final in Chile.
The best of Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy has leant upon real people’s reactions to his outrageous comic characters, elevating the candid camera format to the level of magnificent satire. Borat and Brüno both demonstrated this, but Baron Cohen’s scripted outings, such as Ali G Indahouse, The Dictator and now Grimsby, have only exemplified how difficult that level of humanity can be to fake.
Without a diegetic sounding board like the great American public, Grimsby subsists on lobbing gross-out set pieces and instantly dated pop culture references at the fourth wall instead, more often hitting the gag reflex than the funny bone. Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston and Peter Baynham have more than enough social conscience between them, but however subversive their approach may be, they do their subject no favours by alternately stoking stereotypes and patronising people.
The movie appears to be punching upwards for the most part, although its targets are unfocused and all over the shop. For instance, while we know what Donald Trump has done to deserve his treatment here, we’re not sure why a supremely unconvincing lookalike of Daniel Radcliffe was included. Behind-the-scenes chatter suggests that these characters replaced the Pope and the Queen, which shows that they were willing to climb down from some heights of tastelessness. Still, the manner of Trump and Radcliffe’s, er, comeuppance doesn’t ring true.
Conversely, there’s an already infamous gross-out scene midway through the film, involving Baron Cohen, Strong and an elephant, which is, for better or worse, the highlight of the whole thing. Whatever you think of Strong’s performance in the rest of the film, he proves very game in this one scene, which approaches Méliès-like levels of demented inspiration. It’s too bad that action director Louis Leterrier otherwise plays the film straight down the line, whether aiming for laughs or tugging at the heartstrings, and winds up getting caught somewhere between the naff slapstick of Johnny English and the foul-mouthed line-o-ramas of Spy.
If the key to comedy is timing, then Grimsby feels appallingly mistimed, this month of all months. It muddles around a brand of toxic nationalism that has tipped us all into trouble in the summer of 2016, culminating in a sequence that might as well be science fiction after the way England performed in Euro 2016. For all of its topical aspirations, it’s the wrong film for the wrong time, and it’s frankly unlikely to get any better than it is right now.
Grimsby is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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