Sacha Baron Cohen is a moralist. While his works like “Borat” (2006) and “Bruno” (2009) can be sensationalist and offensive, they are meant to act as provocations, ones that point fingers at the ignorance and prejudice laced into American society. Cohen does not look to anger audiences when he sings “Throw the Jew Down the Well” in “Borat;” rather, he wishes to out those who will sing along, unaware of the song’s insincerity.
Cohen still believes himself to be a moralist, but his work has stopped functioning as such. In recent years, he’s moved towards more traditional acting roles, which limits the number of daring political statements. However, he recently returned with the somewhat political “The Brothers Grimsby,” released on March 11. In a special screening at the Union Square Regal Cinema a few days before the release, Cohen presented his new film followed by a Q&A which shed light on his creative process.
It’s worth diving immediately into the film’s worst scene, both due to its horrifying vulgarness and the pointlessness in describing a plot that’s essentially nonexistent. Nobby (Cohen), a drunken soccer troublemaker, has just found his long lost brother Sebastian (Mark Strong), who turns out to be a secret agent. The two are on the run for illogical reasons and are hunted by government agents, one managing to shoot Sebastian in the scrotum with a poison dart. Sebastian demands Nobby suck out the poison, because otherwise he’ll die, to which a disgustingly gratuitous scene plays out where Strong forces a fake ball-sac into Baron Cohen’s mouth, repeating “suck and spit.”
The humor derives from the forcefulness, homoeroticism and incestuous quality of the encounter, but to be plain, it’s staged as rape, which is definitely not humorous. It is horrifying to watch and is amplified tenfold by the fact that it is presented as comedy.
This is just the bottom of the barrel in a film that redefines the bottom of the barrel. The acting is poor and the script is nonsensical and predictable, but nothing compares to the humor, which is forced and idiotic at best and gravely offensive at worst. In another scene, Nobby is supposed to advance their mission in South Africa by seducing a woman, whom he is told is gorgeous and wearing a green dress. He passes by the obviously attractive white blonde to erroneously arrive at Gabourey Sidibe, an African maid in a green uniform. The comedy is mistaken identity, but whether it’s Sidibe’s race or weight that’s meant to make the scene more humorous is difficult to deduce, and both are undoubtedly awful.
The aspiring moralist, Cohen’s wish was to “make someone who was vilified by even the working class into a hero.” The vilified is Nobby, but he is homophobic and insensitive, and the humor around him is even more so. It’s clear how the insensitivity could bleed through, as Baron Cohen introduced the film by saying, “We’ve got Gabourey Sidibe and Barkhad however you say his name in the film, so I’m not a racist.” (He was referring Barkhad Abdi, the Oscar nominated actor known for “Captain Phillips.”)
In the Q&A, Cohen reflected on the value of risking his reputation for comedy.
“I fight for the gag because I want to hear you guys laugh,” he said. Unfortunately, what viewers are laughing at are cheap, immoral gags.
“The Brothers Grimsby” is currently playing in area theaters.
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