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A Review of "The Brothers Grimsby" (2016)

The Brothers Grimsby taught me something interesting about comedy.  Well, that's maybe overstating it a little.  I don't know that it teaches anybody anything.  But it did lead me to an interesting observation: Sacha Baron Cohen's career is on virtually the same trajectory as Adam Sandler's.

They both started out strong with roots in television.  They broke out with antics that pegged them as "bad boys of comedy," pushing the envelope wherever they could.  They both repeatedly draw from their Jewish heritage, a slew of silly voices, and gross-out gags as their go-to comic tools.  Most importantly, they both started out with a couple of major hits which are still perceived as being their best movies despite at least a decade's worth of experience since.

If you could line up their careers as perfect parallels, then Cohen would be roughly where Sandler was when Little Nicky was released.  The last two movies he made that can be properly defined as "his" have had mixed reviews (Bruno and The Dictator, compared to Sandler's Big Daddy and The Waterboy), and his latest has been downright panned.

Both movies even feature the lead in a stupid-looking, greasy haircut as a joke:

(To further drive the parallel home, this is also around the point where each puts in a dramatic turn, with Les Miserables and Punch Drunk Love, although the timing gets a little fuzzy and that's not really my point.)

But here's the thing.  Despite my repeated complaints about Sandler, I still love Sacha Baron Cohen - and I actually enjoyed The Brothers Grimsby.  It's foul, over-the-top, and in desperate need of a filter, sure, but there's also quite a few good jokes, and Cohen is fun to watch.

It's the kind of comedy I probably should be ashamed to admit I liked.  So, don't take this as a recommendation.  I'm having a hard enough time reconciling my own reaction to it, let alone trying to figure out who else should see it.  Maybe the litmus test would be whether or not you laugh at the idea of a Chekhov's firework-in-the-ass?  If you're intrigued, give this one a shot.

Grimsby is cruder than any of Sandler's worst material, yet there's something about it that didn't give me the same visceral, "What the fuck is wrong with you?" reaction.  I can't quite put my finger on it.  Part of it is probably the jovial sense of screwing around that pervades the film in contrast to Sandler's totally misplaced homophobia and racism.  Sure, Grimsby goes to horrible lengths to wring a laugh, but it doesn't make people's identity the joke.  (With the possible exception of working class Brits.)  Cohen's approach is to find the most ridiculous possible way for a scene to end and work at getting it there - politics don't even enter into it.

More importantly: he isn't afraid to make himself the butt of the joke.  My biggest complaint about Sandler's films - even ones that I had marginal praise for - is that Sandler always has to play such a totally awesome dude.  The worst shit that happens to somebody in his movies is going to happen to one of his peons.  He's too far above it to be humiliated. Even when there is a joke at his expense, it's only a brief and mild interlude before the next atrocity to befall Rob Schneider or Nick Swardson or, more likely, some poor bastard in his rookie season on SNL.

Cohen doesn't have that problem.  The most heinous things in this movie all happen to him.  It's almost masochistic.  I mean, really, how often can you be warn somebody that the first joke in which a guy gets splattered with semen is the tame one?

I'm stuck in a precarious place from a fan's perspective.  I initially enjoyed Little Nicky, too, when I first saw it.  It wasn't until years later when I grew up a bit more and revisited it that I realized how awful that movie is.  It's entirely possible that the same thing will happen with Grimsby, too.  I'm sure the difference between me watching it now as a 32 year-old and later as a 37 year-old won't be quite as dramatic as when I watched Little Nicky as a 16 year-old and then later as a 21 year-old, but my tastes will undoubtedly keep changing. Who's to say where my opinion of Cohen will stand ten years from now?

I have faith that he'll bounce back and write a film that is universally beloved again.  But I've been burned before.  I wait with bated breath.