Although he faded from view after making his name by portraying characters such as Borat and Ali G in real-world situations, Sacha Baron Cohen now returns to headline The Brothers Grimsby, an outrageous, lowbrow comedy from director Louis Leterrier. Cohen, who also co-wrote the film (along with Phil Johnston and Peter Baynham), stars as Nobby, a ridiculous, reckless father of 11 who lives with his beloved girlfriend. The only thing he's missing in his life is his younger brother Sebastian, as the pair were separated when they were orphaned as children. After obtaining some new information from a friend, Nobby is reunited with Sebastian (Mark Strong), now an MI6 agent, at a charity dinner organized by celebrity philanthropist Rhonda George (Penélope Cruz). Nobby distracts his brother while he's aiming at a potential assailant, causing him to instead graze an innocent bystander. This mishap forces Sebastian to go on the run, but he can't seem to shake Nobby, who insists on tagging along. Later, Sebastian realizes that he needs his brother's support when he discovers a conspiracy involving George that puts everyone on Earth in danger. Predictably, high jinks and naughty jokes ensue.
Cohen is engaging enough as an actor here, but the film strains too hard for its laughs, which often results in moments that vary between offensive and puerile. Although the protagonist is himself a working-class Brit, The Brothers Grimsby takes an excessive number of potshots at the "common man," aiming for easy guffaws based on tired stereotypes and physical comedy that ranges from gross to extremely gross. The movie is not above making cracks about AIDS and gay sex (the latter of which is "explored" in a scene that shouldn't have made the final cut, yet goes on for several minutes), and the writers' obsession with tasteless humor seems to have distracted them from coming up with any sort of passable plot.
It's quite a shame that The Brothers Grimsby falls so short of the mark left by Cohen's previous work, because the assemblage of talent in this movie can't be so easily dismissed. Isla Fisher, who is Cohen's spouse in real life and plays Sebastian's colleague and love interest, remains one of Hollywood's most underrated comedic straight women. Likewise, Strong, who typically plays antagonistic enforcers and schemers, seems to be having a ball in this new role (which is somewhat similar to Jason Statham's turn in the superior 2015 comedy Spy). Leterrier's direction provides the quality of a big-budget action film, with a variety of crisp visuals and cutaways. And the most pleasant surprise is the comedic debut of Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), seen here as an amiable drug smuggler who befriends Nobby. Abdi is in just two scenes, but he manages to steal both of them.
Unfortunately, not even the wattage of star power can save this mess. The film may do very well among its demo of teenage boys and adults who are fans of fart jokes and firecrackers. Audiences looking for more from their studio comedies, however, need not buy tickets for this offering. The Brothers Grimsby constantly flails in its attempts to garner laughs, and based on the touchy subjects it guilelessly tackles, its heart doesn't even seem to be in the right place. It's time for Cohen to go back to the type of authentic, fearless social satire that endeared him to viewers in the first place.