As a resident of the town of which this movie is named after, most news I heard building up to this release was about how offended we were by this movie’s mere existence. That we would get so mad that we chuck our fish and welfare at the screen whilst wearing our Conference League football shirts and going on to lead picket lines from the docks. But aside from the more uptight of the community, and a few political figures who had to save face, but in general, I think I can say that most people just don’t give a shit. Even if we were it also wasn’t worth it, because the Grimsby of this movie is just short hand for “Northern” (just like the accent) like the little shanty town was shorthand for Kazakhstan in Borat. They didn’t even film it here, but in Essex. Probably because otherwise it would look too unbelievable otherwise.
It’s been nearly ten years since Borat made Sasha Baron Cohen an international star and a generation of school kids ran that impression into the ground, and since then he has made a series of attempts at other characters with descending quality. Bruno was a much less even film, but still funny in its more scabrous moments, and The Dictator, while less funny and pretty tired, at least had a scabrous final speech and prime Jason Mantzoukas. Here though, in his first British production since Ali G Indahouse, he shows why, like in this movie, his character’s worked so much better on TV. Because this is a movie whose home will be late Saturday nights on ITV2, as its ambitions are just as that sounds.
Grimsby’s biggest saving grace is that it is a movie which has plot and scenes which link together. I know how patronising that sounds, but given some comedies as of late which are simply a string of sketches this is not a small feat. I mean the foreshadowing is not particularly subtle; when Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Nobby (ha) randomly shows some tickets for the cup final to Chile, you can pretty much be certain where this movie is going to end up. But it does give the film a driving propulsion for how quick the runtime is. For a while I even thought that this would have been standard but still watchable spy movie if the comedy didn’t keep getting in the way. That is from the direction of Louis Leterrier, who started off in the Transporter franchise, and so here he seems much more comfortable in action mode than comedy mode. He spends these action sequences playing around with first person camera technology, which is novel but because somewhat incoherent when the movie keeps cutting away in a typical post-Bourne style.
The less than stellar action or the way that the plot dissolves towards the end – being the second comedy this year to waste Penelope Cruz – would be forgiven if the film was funnier. But Cohen’s reputation as a shock comic precedes him at this point, to the point that whilst more subtle and off the cuff gags actually do land (like a drug contact made through Linkedin, being blasé about his capabilities with a gun or instantly thinking the evil organisation was FIFA), he puts way more energy to the “controversial” jokes which he knows will make the fuddy-duddy’s squirm and the middle classes at its subversive qualities behind their lattes. These include a recurring AIDS through-line that really should have been a passing joke rather than a full blown CGI’d sequence and gag which competes with The Love Guru and Freddie Got Fingered in the Bad Comedies with an Elephant Orgasm Award.
The actors do go into these scenes with some bravado. Rebel Wilson is only in the movie for a brief period, but she goes into Basic Instinct gags with gusto. And with gags involving jism and genital sucking, it’s actually pretty amazing that Mark Strong manages to come out of all this with his dignity intact. These crass jokes tend to be thing I’m meant to be “bothered” by, but I often find that the opposite is true. The movie’s main grating points are when it tries to go the sentimental card (which after a few funny moments you realise is sincere), including a tragic backstory with the two brothers, passing hugs and brotherly exchanges, and a big speech at the end that seems specifically tailored to those who accused Cohen of Benefit Street-like class baiting before the film’s release. I mean, I’m glad Cohen is all for the NHS and the welfare state, but when he has made a comedy which makes jokes about benefit cheats and drunken louts, it just ends up feeling an odd sentiment. The tone ends up boiling down to “It’s OK you poor bastards, I’m on your side!” And, more than elephant penis, unearned sentiment makes me want to puke.
Ian McShane and Isla Fisher were also in this movie.
Even taken as a simple fun comedy, of the recent span of spy-parodies we have had over the year, it doesn’t have the cinematic ambitions of Kingsman or just the laughs of Spy. Cohen still can’t help but feel like the odd one out of even his own works That worked when he bounced off real people and let people point out their flaws for themselves, but in scripted comedies the only flaws that come out of the process are his own.