Sacha Baron Cohen Misses Mark With Uninspired "The Brothers Grimsby"

Widespread comparisons between humorist Sacha Baron Cohen and comedy icons Peter Sellers and Andy Kaufman are not for nothing. Baron Cohen flat out earned them with HBO’s “Da Ali G Show.” The unfailingly uproarious mockumentary perfected cringe comedy before either “Arrested Development” or “The Office” hit the scene, singlehandedly ushering in a new era of television comedy. Striking big screen gold with spinoff “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” was merely icing on the cake.

Baron Cohen’s mastery of reflecting the ugliness of phonies, frauds, and bigots back at them has always come with a fab anarchic streak, evidenced by the involvement of legendary “Seinfeld” writer Larry Charles. That subsequent “Ali G” spinoff “Bruno” and political comedy “The Dictator” hit many of the same beats was hardly a mark on the funnyman’s legacy. Although familiar, neither was lacking in substance – or jokes.

It’s telling that Baron Cohen’s legacy lives on in the form of one of TV’s best current shows, Comedy Central’s “Nathan For You.” (The show’s writer and director Nathan Fielder is obviously a Sacha Baron Cohen disciple.)

It’s this impeccable lineage that makes “The Brothers Grimsby” – Baron Cohen’s first pet project in four years – all the more deflating. It’s sporadically funny, yes, but also entirely devoid of meaning and deeply disinterested. The laughs couldn’t be further removed from the narrative (they’d fit into just about any other R-rated raunchfest) and the comedy’s undeniable mean streak isn’t aimed at anyone but the audience.

Baron Cohen stars as Nobby, a dopey English football hooligan and father of nine who’s spent the last 28 years of his life searching for his long-lost brother. When that brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong), turns up as an MI6 superspy, the two are clumsily shoehorned into a generic buddy comedy packed to the gills with spy movie clichés.

Writer-director Paul Feig did the same thing much better in last year’s “Spy,” a film that actually subverted spy movie formula. In “The Brothers Grimsby,” the comedy merely exists alongside a very ordinary action movie outline, rarely crossing paths and never working in concert.

For example, an especially gross gag involving Nobby and Sebastian hiding inside an elephant’s vagina (vaguely reminiscent of a 20 year-old gag from “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls”) is bawdy, irreverent sketch comedy stuffed into an ostensible satire – where it absolutely doesn’t belong.

Likewise, “Harry Potter” actor Daniel Radcliffe (who was not involved in the film, as the end titles forcefully broadcast) is made the butt of an overwrought AIDS jokes that isn’t especially funny but is reminiscent of “Ted” filmmaker Seth MacFarlane’s worst tendencies.

The movie peaks early on, packing a large percentage of its best gags into one sequence and then drooping for the remainder of its humanely short 80-minute running time. As such, it’s economical in the most basic of terms, unearthing a good laugh every ten minutes or so, but considering the talent involved, it’s a gigantic disappointment.

Baron Cohen’s wife, Isla Fisher (“Wedding Crashers”), is marooned in a nothing role as Sebastian’s MI6 liaison, while Ian McShane, Rebel Wilson, and Penelope Cruz face similar fates. But these are small letdowns in the midst of some huge ones, the biggest being the dearth of chemistry between Baron Cohen and Strong.

Strong is significantly out of his element here, undoubtedly a symptom of Sony hiring an action filmmaker with no history in the genre. Louis Leterrier (“The Incredible Hulk) is an abysmal fit here, directing the script like an extra-terrestrial making his first pass at human emotions. Worse yet, he seems to purposefully underemphasize the action, which in turn renders it just as flat as the unearned emotional flashbacks between Nobby and Sebastian.

There are some demented pleasures to be had within, some excellent moments of shock comedy that threaten to burn themselves into our memory. But the rest is such an apathetic affair that it doesn’t even justify Baron Cohen superfans plunking down their hard-earned cash.

“The Brothers Grimsby” is inessential to its core, marking a fork in the road for its creator. It might be time at last for Sacha Baron Cohen to start anew – and really cement himself as one of his generation’s best.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: March 11, 2016
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Louis Leterrier
Screenwriter: Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston, Peter Baynham
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson, Gabourey Sidibe, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane
MPAA Rating: R (for strong crude sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, language, and some drug use)