Friday 4 March 2016

Grimsby: The Rough and The Smooth

Director: Louis Letterier
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Penélope Cruz
Running time: 83 mins

Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong on the run in Grimsby

Sacha Baron Cohen - aka Borat, Bruno and Ali G - returns, this time as Nobby Butcher, a profane, filthy and thoroughly feckless member of the titular northern town's underclass. He looks like Liam Gallagher, is covered in England football tattoos, and seems to spend most of his time at the local pub with a pint in his hand and a firework up his jacksie.

Despite having a large and loving family, including at least nine kids and a girlfriend (Rebel Wilson), Nobby is sad at the fact he and his long-lost brother Sebastian (Mark Strong) were separated when they were very young. Sebastian was adopted by a well-to-do London family, Nobby was left in social care, and has spent the last 28 years hoping against hope for his sibling's return.

When the two are finally reunited, it turns out Sebastian is now an MI6 agent. But after Nobby ruins one of his brother's missions they both have to go on the run from the authorities while trying to foil an insidious plot that threatens to wipe out billions of people worldwide...

Nobby is apprehended at the World Cup final

1. Success has been a double-edged sword for Sacha Baron Cohen. On the one hand, he's rich, famous and married to Isla Fisher, on the other he's now too well known to be able to do the kind of 'undercover' stuff that made his name. Everyone is familiar with his characters on both sides of the Atlantic and he'd have to pull off a pretty spectacular disguise in order to introduce a new one. What he's had to do instead is plough a more traditional furrow - namely, controversial scripted comedies like this and 2012's The Dictator. The problem is, they simply aren't as funny or nearly as sharp as the comedian's previous work. There was a meticulousness to Borat, Bruno and Ali G, and although they were archetypes of one sort or another (funny foreigner, outrageous homosexual, clueless wigga), they were all fully-realised characters. Nobby Butcher - perhaps because he doesn't have to interact with real people who could catch him out - is a far sketchier proposition.
2. Should a privately-schooled, Oxbridge-educated, multi-millionaire like Baron Cohen be making jokes at the expense of the poor? Probably not, but I'm yet to be convinced he's 'punching down' in the way many critics seem to think he is.

The Butcher boys are on a mission in Grimsby (trailer)

3. The plot is slapdash at best, and there are times when the whole film barely hangs together in any coherent sense at all. Grimsby often comes across as a series of sketches that just happen to feature the same characters each time. 
4. The only thing worse than Baron Cohen's northern accent? Rebel Wilson's northern accent.
5. Liam Gallagher jokes? Is this 1995?
6. Penélope Cruz isn't given nearly enough to do which is ridiculous when the film itself only runs to 83 minutes (with credits). Couldn't they have written her a couple of extra scenes? Gabourey Sidibe and Ian McShane are underused too.  
7. England in a World Cup final? Of all the most far-fetched, ridiculous plot twists in Grimsby that is probably the least believable. 
8. Now You See Me director Louis Letterier's action scenes are solid but hardly remarkable. Last year's Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy did a better job of mixing secret agent comedy with explosions and punch-ups.  
9. 'Working class rough diamond becomes a secret agent and unlikely hero'. Hang on a minute, isn't that the exact same plot as last year's Kingsman: The Secret Service?

Baron Cohen and Rebel Wilson: True love ways

1. I'm perfectly happy for 'gross-out' comedies to offend me as long as they make me laugh too. I call this the 'Animal House test' (after John Landis's spectacularly un-PC 1978 movie) and Grimsby passes it with flying colours. 
2. The Daniel Radcliffe joke. So cruel, so arbitrary (Radcliffe is, by all accounts, a thoroughly nice man) and therefore very, very funny.
3. The 'elephant vagina' scene might just be the most outrageous thing I've ever witnessed in a comedy movie. It makes the likes of Dirty Grandpa and Deadpool look like Frozen. And just when you think it can't possibly get any more depraved... they kick it up a notch.
4. Rebel Wilson may not be able to do a Grimsby accent to save her life but she more than makes the most of her limited screen time here. All is forgiven for those terrible BT Infinity TV ads (almost).
5. The names of Nobby's kids and grandkids – including Skeletor and Django Unchained – had me laughing like an idiot for a full five minutes.
6. Mark Strong gives it 100 per cent in surely the most thankless straight-man role imaginable. He suffers indignity heaped upon indignity, humiliation heaped upon humiliation. The bloke is clearly a trouper. I wonder if he noticed the similarities to Kingsman (which he was also in)?

Brotherly love: Sebastian and Nobby Butcher

7. I've been surprised that so many critics and commentators have accused Baron Cohen and his writers of 'punching down' and perpetuating the kind of underclass stereotypes you see regularly in the British gutter press and on vile TV shows such as Benefits Street. What this analysis ignores, of course, is that Nobby and his Grimsby mates are the heroes of the story and the villain someone who is plotting to wipe out the world's poor with a lethal virus. He's daft as a brush but Nobby is portrayed as a loving and loyal family man who follows a brother he hasn't seen for 28 years into enormous peril. At worst, Baron Cohen is having his cake and eating it but I think the film's message is a simple one - 'Don't judge a work-shy idiot with a firework up his arse by its cover' (or something).
I suspect Baron Cohen's intention was to take the tired and insulting stereotypes of 'scroungers' and 'benefit cheats' and try to subvert them into something more positive. The comedian is a lot more cleverer (as Ali G might say) than he's given credit for. 
8. Nobby's ridiculous 'Sean Connery as James Bond' impression is a treat and his "scum" speech towards the end manages to be genuinely funny whilst again having a jab at those who seek to denigrate the poor. It's Shameless meets Henry V.

Nobby cramps Sebastian's secret agent style

9. It's always good to see British comedy stalwarts John Thompson, Johnny Vegas and Ricky Tomlinson, even if the latter's character is called 'Paedo Pete' and is the subject of one of the film's most startlingly un-PC gags.
10. The long-lost brothers stuff is actually sensitively handled – in a film that the rest of the time is chock-a-bloc with toilet humour and wall-to-wall smut, the occasional dash of schmaltz works surprisingly well.

11. "Donald Trump has AIDS".

RESULT: Rough 9 Smooth 11. In the end, it's a comfortable win for Baron Cohen and Letterier. I'm not sure I ever need see Grimsby again but it made me laugh more than any movie has managed in a while. They were proper belly laughs, too.

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