Like Ali G and Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Nobby from The Brothers Grimsby is a human Rorschach blot, crafted to suss out essential truths about the people he interacts with. But where those other two characters put their audiences in a privileged position, laughing at (or admiring the patience of) the non-actors they interacted with, Nobby tests us like a hyperactive preschooler, sometimes hamfistedly transgressive, sometimes simply mischievous, and occasionally scoring a surprisingly cogent point.
The film is an anti-snobbery stealth bomb, delivering the message that dumb jokes and other simple pleasures, and the unpretentious working-class people who enjoy them, are every bit as good as the sanctimonious elites who look down on such things. To get viewers to think about whether they line up on one side or the other of that divide or straddle it, more or less uncomfortably, The Brothers Grimsby keeps firing jokes at us, daring us to laugh by lining up one after another, many of them stupid, overfamiliar, or potentially offensive, then taking the premise so far that you may find yourself laughing at the sheer absurdity of the thing. Or not.
Aside from its propensity to dive overboard, The Brothers Grimsby is a deeply conventional film, starting with the fact—unusual for Cohen—that it expects its audience to empathize with its main character. A wide-eyed welfare cheat who we first encounter as he’s testing a mattress in a store by having sex on it with his girlfriend, Nobby seems at first to be as off-puttingly socially inept as Cohen’s more famous characters. But then he heads home to his unruly but well-loved herd of kids and the overcrowded flat where he keeps a much-needed bedroom empty for his brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong), for whom he’s been pining ever since they were separated as kids, and you realize he’s a good man—not the sharpest pencil in the box, but loving and loyal.
That bait and switch takes only a couple of minutes to play out, moving as briskly as everything else in this minimally plotted spoof. Nobby soon reunites with his brother, of course, and Sebastian turns out to be a slick secret agent for a branch of MI5, turning this into a raggedy Bond knockoff starring the odd-couple brothers. Nobby is delighted with the guns he starts firing partway through their adventure, crowing: “It completely detaches you from the guilt of your actions!” That line, and his propensity to blithely kill the wrong people now that he just can’t stop shooting at things, is a nicely sharp running commentary on the rampant gunplay in most spy movies and the way it never seems to result in unintended deaths.
But The Brothers Grimsby doesn’t do much to satirize the spy genre, instead using its flimsy plot mostly as a scaffolding for a barrage of jokes. Many of them—especially the ones based on Nobby’s terror of gay sex, which include a variation on that tired old joke about having to suck poison out of another man’s dick—are painfully unfunny. But some are simply, and delightfully, silly. And a few, like the bit where Nobby, who likes curvy women, passes up a slender blonde to hit lasciviously on Gabourey Sidibe, are slyly subversive, inviting us to question our preconceptions in a most welcome way.