At one point in “The Brothers Grimsby,” two men trying to hide from some assassins crawl inside an elephant’s vagina. Then a male suitor pays the animal a visit. This should be enough to help you decide whether the latest comedy by Sacha Baron Cohen is for you. If taken on its low-brow terms, the movie can be considerable fun. You just won’t remember much of it a couple of days later.
Still, “The Brothers Grimsby” is a step up from “The Dictator,” the leaden comedy that marked Cohen’s transition into narrative features after the mockumentaries “Borat” and “Bruno.” All three of those movies were directed by Larry Charles, a former staff writer and producer on “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “The Brothers Grimsby” was directed by Louis Leterrier, whose previous credits include “Clash of the Titans” and “Transporter 2.” This time, a background in comedy was not deemed essential, which implies Cohen probably called most of the shots on the set.
“The Brothers Grimsby,” which spoofs espionage thrillers of the James Bond and Jason Bourne variety, contains a fair amount of action, which explains Leterrier’s participation. But the bulk of the film is a comedy about class differences, punctuated at regular intervals by gross-out gags involving bodily orifices and fluids. One of them, already notorious, involves Donald Trump accidentally contracting the HIV virus. This sounds tasteless and desperate, until you see it within the context of the movie. Afterward, it is still tasteless, but it is also kind of hilarious.
Nobby (Cohen), a working-class lunkhead and soccer fanatic, discovers that his long-lost brother (Mark Strong) is now an MI6 super-agent. That’s pretty much all you get in terms of story — narrative is not Cohen’s strong suit — but “The Brothers Grimsby” doesn’t need any more. The movie is a series of skits that have been stitched together into an 80-minute movie. Gabourey Sidibe plays a hotel maid whose full-sized figure reminds Nobby of his wife (Rebel Wilson). Penelope Cruz is an activist who may be harboring a secret agenda. Isla Fisher is a British spy who tries in vain to seduce Nobby.
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Aside from a few melancholy flashbacks depicting the two brothers’ sad childhood, everything in “The Brothers Grimsby” is played for laughs, and a surprising number of the jokes land. Strong fares well as the straight man to his co-star’s antics, and Nobby is one of Cohen’s more endearing creations, a dim-witted bloke with a hard-scrabble life who loves people as much as he loves heroin, which he calls a gateway drug (as in “a gateway drug to more heroin”). No, it’s not all that sophisticated. But compared to junk like “Zoolander 2,” “The Brothers Grimsby” is practically high art.
“THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY”
☆ ☆ 1/2 (out of 4)
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Isla Fisher, Penelope Cruz, Rebel Wilson, Gabourey Sidibe, Barkhad Abdi, Ian McShane.
Director: Louis Leterrier.
Screenwriters: Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston, Peter Baynham.
Running time: 82 minutes.
Rated R: Vulgar language, considerable nudity, explicit sex, violence, gore, drug use, adult themes.
A Columbia Pictures release