Grimsby is an efficient tonal mess

Sacha Baron Cohen’s dull spy movie can’t be saved by one wacky character

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Grimsby is a movie which follows two brothers on the run from the law for shooting a small refugee child with AIDs. Yes, really.

The character of Nobby (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a binge drinking, council estate living, benefits cheat with seven kids who discovers the whereabouts of his long-lost brother Sebastian (Mark Strong) and attempts to reconnect with him.

The plot is simple, but the film somehow finds a way to make it seem baffling. It’s a straightforward premise that the film stumbles towards explaining through painfully acted flashbacks with child actors, and humourless scenes in which heart strings are ineffectually tugged at within the opening ten minutes of the movie. The film is somewhat of a tonal mess due to this as it clearly has all its money on comedy. It derives its laughs mainly from class humour and gross out gags, with the town of Grimsby being portrayed in a comically caricatured squalor that makes Borat’s Kazakhstan look like Covent Garden.  Grimsby is an outlandish, offensive character with such over the top flaws and a fool proof confidence that he does work to an extent as a lead man, bumped somewhat by the talents of Cohen.

It is not necessary for a comedy film to have a good plot, sometimes they can get by without one at all. Nevertheless, it is secondary to the jokes, I could not for the life of me remember the plot to The Naked Gun despite having seen it dozens of times, it doesn’t take away from the impact of the film. The fact that comedy can stand on its own in a way that drama cannot is the reason why sketch comedies exist, why YouTube personalities and Vine stars can make a name for themselves. Comedy in its basest form is non-contextual.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s career seems to be built on a foundation of uncomfortable laughs, whether it is cringe humour, racist humour, or gross out humour there is always an underlying thought that you shouldn’t really be laughing at it. At many points in Grimsby it felt as if I should not be laughing at it because it was in many cases too puerile. However, some of its most puerile jokes are also its most fruitful which helps me to forgive the film its biggest misgivings.

What strikes me as most strange about Grimsby is how little time it dedicates to let moments land. It is clearly a vehicle for crass jokes and physical comedy and so the comedy should take priority. Yet we are still constantly jolted around from plot point to plot point to serve the story. Editing is too fast paced to allow for any joke to be truly enjoyed. There is a scene in which Sebastian must embark on a mission but has accidentally been given heroin by Nobby. Jodie finds out about this from Nobby and has almost no reaction to finding out her straight edge partner is in a heroin induced stupor. She instead immediately tells Nobby that he must perform the mission instead, there is absolutely no comedic pay off for the solid set up. Instead the whole heroin issue serves only to push Nobby into another situation where he can be common and inappropriate.

Therein lies the issue with the movie, it does not deviate from its main plot, it is perhaps to streamlined for a comedy film. It does not skewer its target enough to be clever and it does not set itself up for higher quality jokes with set ups, it simply takes what it can get in the moment. Ultimately the time flies by and the film is mostly forgettable because each scene is conflicted between serving the comedic vision or the naff spy plot.

Recommendation

There is a sweet point in movie comedy, when an obvious or crass joke reaches a level of ridiculousness that it comes all the way back around that it becomes funny again. Grimsby reaches this point at multiple times throughout its short running time but fails to maintain a consistent level of humour on a scene by scene basis.  Not enough laughs to make a decent film, but just enough to stave off feelings of regret for sitting through it for 90 minutes.

I am sure that there are many 14-year-old boys in school that would love this movie and many people, myself included, will delight in discussing or describing “the elephant scene” to anyone that will listen.

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