Ten years ago, in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Sacha Baron Cohen held up clueless white-male privilege, racist cruelty, and idiotic sexism (among other petty smallmindednesses) as worthy of ridicule. Seven years ago, in Bruno, he held up straight men’s gay panic (as well as other kneejerk ignorances and superficialities) as deserving of derision. The daring and fearless cultural critic that Baron Cohen was once would be appalled by the crass viciousness of Grimsby. He has made himself the target of his former self with a witless action “comedy” that embraces the lowest forms of cruelty and bigotry, that wallows in anti-intellectualism, that celebrates poor-bashing as great good fun. In my 2009 review of Bruno, I wondered whether the fact that many people seemed to miss the satire of Baron Cohen’s work back then would lead us to ask, “How far should we be expected to dumb down movies?” And now Grimsby has answered that question: all the way down into the sewers.
Grimsby is a soul-crushing experience not only for what it is itself, but for what it represents about the downfall of a comic who previously displayed genuine creative genius: he has become what he once rightly disdained. He now panders to those he once rightly mocked.
Ten-years-ago Baron Cohen would be dismayed at the glee with which today’s Baron Cohen (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Les Misérables) invites us to laugh at his portrayal — as star and cowriter — of Nobby Butcher, who doesn’t work, has nine kids (and two grandkids) with his wife (Rebel Wilson: How to Be Single, Pitch Perfect 2), proudly announces the benefits (aka welfare) scams that bring money into the household, and enjoys shooting fireworks out of his ass down at the pub. Ten-years-ago Baron Cohen might have held up for ridicule the one-percenters who reduced Nobby’s hometown of Grimsby — a working-class city in the north of England — to a postindustrial hellscape (one that the real citizens of the real Grimsby would not actually recognize, I suspect), but here it is only the unemployed poor who come in for abuse: they drink too much, have too many kids, and are generally disgusting slobs living the high life on the government teat. (Here’s another movie, along with London Has Fallen, that Donald Trump voters will love.)
But even after holding up Nobby as a happy yet revolting moron, Grimsby expects us to feel something akin to tenderness for him when he finally finds his long-lost brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong: Kingsman: The Secret Service, Before I Go to Sleep), who was adopted away separately when they were orphaned as children. Sebastian is now a top agent with MI-6 — smart, sleek, supremely competent, the precise opposite of Nobby — but we cannot feel much kindness or generosity toward him either: even after Nobby has ruined one of Sebastian’s ops, injured the agent, further endangered the agent’s cover and life, and has even done some idiotic things that threaten world peace and stability, Sebastian still has not run away in the opposite direction.
Any attempt on the movie’s part to create authentic brotherly feeling between the men is missing. In its place, we have a thoroughly fatuous spy sendup as Nobby tags along on Sebastian’s mission to stop a fiendish plot to kill millions. And that is subsumed to endlessly drawn-out scenes of penis panic — a new subset of gay panic that Baron Cohen appears to have newly invented — that are designed to engage the viewer’s presumed revulsion rather than pity (as ten-years-ago Baron Cohen would have done). Grimsby presumes that the viewer will agree that fat women — not just Wilson but, in a truly vile sequence, Gabourey Sidibe (Seven Psychopaths, Tower Heist) as a hotel maid — are gross, and the fact that Nobby finds them sexy is hilarious. On the other hand, Grimsby presumes that we will agree with Nobby that discovering that one of your pop-culture heroes is gay is the same as discovering that one of them is a rapist. And after all of this, we will be invited to consider that the very people that the movie has been offering up to us as poor, dumb, and good for absolutely nothing are in fact the essential foundations of society. We do not buy it, not even a little bit. The movie itself doesn’t even seem to buy it.
Grimsby is lazy, cheap, lurid, and stupid. It is painfully unfunny and, worst of all, pointless. It is so short — well under 90 minutes — and feels so endless. I don’t know how Sacha Baron Cohen found himself in this place: there may be a tragically sad story in that. But there can be no excuse for this movie.