Not long ago, Mark Strong wowed Broadway audiences as longshoreman Eddie Carbone in a stylized, sophisticated production of Arthur Miller’s revered, tragic chestnut A View from the Bridge, a role in which he proved his mastery of the thespian’s craft. Now, you can see him inside an elephant’s vagina. We really do live in amazing times.
But you can learn a lot about an actor from how he conducts himself inside an elephant’s chamber of forbidden secrets, and Strong acquits himself with aplomb in The Brothers Grimsby, in which he plays Sebastian, a suave MI6 agent reunited with his long-lost brother, a working-class yobbo named Nobby, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Nine out of ten gags in this crude pub crawl of a comedy are indefensible. Maybe ten out of ten. Tragically, perhaps, I laughed anyway: It’s so hard to know what to laugh at anymore, and what it’s OK to laugh at. But the sheer, stupid outrageousness of The Brothers Grimsby wore me down into a kind of trance. In an early scene, Baron Cohen’s Nobby admonishes one of the tiniest of his nine children—or is it 11?—not to smoke. “I thought you just meant crack!” says the miniature hooligan-in-training. “No,” Nobby responds solemnly, “cigarettes too. At your age you should just be vaping.”
Making jokes about little children and smoking! The world is surely ending. I kept a tally of gags that I thought might be offensive to someone, somewhere, even though I couldn’t be sure they were offensive to me. My notes became a scribbled mess of quizzical adjectives, arrows and question marks. “Homophobic?” “Racist?” “Insensitive toward those who are overweight?” “Possibly misogynist but only against elephants?” OK, I didn’t actually write that down, but you get the idea. Usually, Baron Cohen (also one of the movie’s writers) goes too far. But in comedy, how do you know when to stop, when pushing a joke is often the very thing that could make it work? It has all become very confusing.
Yet the spirit of The Brothers Grimsby is weirdly generous, even if Baron Cohen can’t always hold things together. (The director is Louis Leterrier, who gave us the first two Transporter movies.) The plot is silly beyond belief: After messing up one of Sebastian’s missions, Nobby joins with his brother to do spy stuff, leaving his beloved wife, Dawn (Rebel Wilson), the mother of his many children, back home in their disheveled Grimsby flat. Clearly, he likes a woman with a little heft to her. That’s why, while doing spy stuff in South Africa, when he’s told to search a hotel lobby for a “gorgeous” woman, he completely overlooks the slim blonde in the slinky number and makes a beeline for a hotel maid (Gabourey Sidibe) in a cotton shirtwaist. The joke doesn’t quite connect, but Baron Cohen is at least trying for something: Nobby is regular in every way, and proud of it, a champion of the underclass. Yet he doesn’t see the world in quite the way everyone else does. He’s a creature of big, brawny appetites but also of surprising sensitivity, a visionary with a beer gut.
Then again, there’s that moment where an enraptured Nobby fires a gun for the first time, joyously killing people right and left while the theme from The Great Escape toodles in the background. It’s wild and over-the-top, though Baron Cohen also tosses in an author’s-message line about how wonderful it feels to have so much power and feel no culpability. Baron Cohen is thinking every minute, even when his id is going full-throttle. Not all of what he does works. In fact, if you’re looking for a thinking-person’s comedy, none of The Brothers Grimsby works. It’s all about giving yourself over to anarchy, and watching tall, stalwart Mark Strong play the straight man (wonderfully) to Baron Cohen’s disorderly yet oddly innocent ruffian. Just remember, though: Where there’s elephant vagina, there’s elephant… You have been warned.