Sacha Baron Cohen spent the noughties committing a series of escalating pranks—first from the interviewer’s chair, and then across the entire continental US—in a series of films that were begrudgingly praised for the sharpness of their satire. In Grimsby—his latest entirely scripted comedy following Ali G Indahouse and The Dictator—he returns to the subject of working class Britain, though without the gotcha moments that made The Ali G Show valuable. The film follows Nobby (Sacha Baron Cohen), a cross-section of every negative characterisation we’ve heard about the ‘welfare class’, a man who has never left the fishing town of Grimsby, and yearns to be reunited with his brother, who was adopted out of the town. We soon learn that his brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong), has flourished as a debonair secret agent. In portraying this dichotomy, the film’s opening portion is neatly divided between Nobby’s hijinks and Sebastian’s missions overseas.
My first concern with the film is how its action scenes are rendered. Baron Cohen, clearly in awe of the Drone and Google Glass generation, plays all the action scenes through first-person perspective (morosely justified through a plot device of Sebastian’s handlers back at base using cameras implanted in his eye to keep up with the action). They play out like parkour videos crossed with in-game footage from Call of Duty.While this may be an effective bit when played on a smartphone, it ultimately feels disorienting on the big screen; ignoring the fundamental need for the viewer to see the hero oriented within the scene.1
The action scenes are recorded in a single take—absolutely praiseworthy!—but Oliver Wood misses an opportunity here to pull the camera back and record something reminiscent of those free-flowing scenes in Oldboy and Eastern Promises. Worse, Baron Cohen seems entirely committed —for the majority of it anyway— to keep the film tonally segregated. Nobby’s scenes are played for laughs, Sebastian’s for excitement, while the overwrought flashbacks to their youth gesture towards creating an emotional attachment, which utterly flops. By the time the film’s divergent threads are integrated, it’s too late—and we find ourselves trapped in a neutral Twilight Zone where jokes and explosions elicit nothing from the audience.
While this probably isn’t a surprise considering Baron Cohen’s loose relationship with narrative, the film’s plot is similarly nonsensical. We are made to believe that a secret agent, always in contact with his handlers, could accidentally shoot the wrong person (due to Nobby’s involvement) and—rather than simply stopping, explaining it’s a mistake, and being censured—is instead, without pause, branded a traitor and made an international criminal. Worse, we are told that this man – whoa minute ago, was reliant on his eye containing cameras attached to a satellite beaming directly to head office—is now somehow untraceable, not just able to escape, but positively jetset over the world without capture. It is lazy writing that creates a lazy justification for the plot that follows. At only 82 minutes, it’s hard not to wonder whether something went desperately wrong behind the scenes or in the editing suite.
Similarly, scenes in South Africa seem tacked on and entirely superficial against the rest of the plot. Either Sacha Baron Cohen wanted to take advantage of cheap labour, as in Borat, or his joke about elephant orgies was non-negotiable; either way, it’s jarring to see the film relocate here for such banal reasons. Briefly, on the comedy, it’s troubling to see how many lines are miffed and just how much difficulty Baron Cohen seems to have in delivering a joke. Perhaps he’s had bad timing all along, and it was concealable beneath foreign accents and reams of improvised footage to choose from. This same difficulty plays out in how Baron Cohen builds the stakes. The film’s brief moments of comedy are lost when Baron Cohen needlessly extends them beyond their climax. Eleven days ago, he appeared on Reddit, providing “some NSFW gifs for you to enjoy with your employer” and watching these bits play out in an endless loop makes you wonder if the film was composed for imgur rather than the cinema.
At its core, the film’s moral is concerned with a defence of the welfare class. Indeed, Baron Cohen goes to great ends to say that all human beings are deserving of dignity regardless of where they come from and how they live. But his villain is a mouthpiece to the reactive conservative agenda—the one that says these ‘welfare cheats’ are little more than parasites fit to be stomped. When paired with his depiction of life in Grimsby, I can’t help but wonder whether the majority of viewers will find themselves siding with the witch who wouldn’t mind watching poor football hooligans die diseased in the street.