English satirical actor, writer and producer Sacha Baron Cohen’s brilliant, but at times putrid, brand of comedy may have earned him Emmy, Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, but his latest flick wades into a sticky, humourless swamp.
Audiences who dare to venture into one of Cohen’s films should expect to have their boundaries challenged, but surely there is a point at which the jokes go too far.
We might have found it.
Grimsby revolves around the reunion of two brothers separated when they were young boys: Nobby Butcher (Sacha Baron Cohen), a middle-aged English football hooligan and father of nine, and Sebastian Grave (Mark Strong), an assassin with MI6.
It is the basis of a good film, and it certainly starts out that way.
But a scene involving a herd of elephants and a highly questionable bestiality gag really takes things too far.
On the run from danger in the barren African savannah, Nobby and Sebastian decide to hide out in an elephant’s vagina.
That isn’t even the worst of it.
About a minute and a half of every elephant sex joke possible follows, and it isn’t easy to watch. Semen is involved and allusions to gang rape too, before it ends with a shot of a dozen bulls in a line behind them.
Usually, Baron Cohen is applauded for his ability to not only shock but challenge perceptions of sexuality, stereotypes and society.
However, a scene that uses the insides of an elephant as a movie set and implications of rape as humour turns a film that has the potential to be a decent flick into a typical gross-out comedy.
See some reactions to the scene below:
But Grimsby is not totally devoid of Baron Cohen’s brand of clever humour.
Actually, discounting the elephant scene, it isn’t too bad, although Nobby lacks the social relevance of some of the 44-year-old’s other brilliant characters, like Ali G or The Dictator’s Admiral General Aladeen.
These characters, and others like Borat and Bruno, slotted perfectly into the social climate at the time of their conception, challenging ill-conceived notions and societal boundaries.
Borat, a Kazakhstani journalist, was so convincing he was followed around the United States by the FBI after “they got so many complaints that there was a terrorist in an ice-cream van”, according to Baron Cohen.
Even Ali G, a white, uneducated, faux-streetwise poseur, was partly an “attempt, subtly, to slightly undermine the establishment”, Baron Cohen has admitted.
Ali G’s recent reappearance in an impromptu skit at the Oscars, amid debate over controversial omission of black performers from the Academy Award nominations, proved just how well his relevance has survived.
Nobby just doesn’t possess the same clout.
Unlike the characters he creates, Baron Cohen, 44, actually had a privileged upbringing, attending the prestigious Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School north of London.
He grew up in a Jewish household in London – his mother was a movement instructor, while his father owned a clothing store – and graduated from the University of Cambridge with upper second-class honours before he pursued a career in acting.
Meanwhile, Nobby is blissfully happy in his hellhole of a town, which takes its name from the English town of Grimsby and whose real-life residents weren’t keen on their home being portrayed as a “rubbish-strewn, violent ghetto in which drunks urinate from windows and mothers hand children cans of beer in the street”, Fairfax Media reported.
An eternal optimist, Nobby spends most of his time at the pub watching the football, offering off-kilter parenting advice to his kids, or attending to his devoted girlfriend (Aussie actress Rebel Wilson).
Although his antics are occasionally entertaining, Nobby doesn’t seem to serve a higher purpose than merely grossing out the audience and annoying his far more mature younger brother.
It may be a valiant attempt to shock and appal but ultimately Grimsby just doesn’t meet the standards fans of Baron Cohen’s meticulously-crafted characters have come to expect.