REVIEW: Sacha Baron Cohen's Brothers Grimsby Has Plenty of Shocks, Just Not Enough Laughs

Sacha Baron Cohen's Brothers Grimsby: PEOPLE Review
Sacha Baron Cohen in The Brothers Grimsby

03/11/2016 AT 11:15 AM EST

The spectrum of outrageousness in The Brothers Grimsby, Sacha Baron Cohen's uneven new comedy, could be said to be bracketed by two jokes: One is about an elephant's vagina. The other is about Donald Trump getting AIDS.

You shouldn't consider either of those spoilers. Think instead that you've been offered the chance to kick the tires on a car before deciding whether you'd feel secure going for a ride.

The elephant vagina joke is probably a classic example of the Baron Cohen brand of humor, which should be firmly stamped in the consciousness of anyone who saw Borat or Brüno. It's as ludicrous as it is viscerally vulgar – and then the gag escalates logically, until the crudeness, wincingly gross as it may be, acquires a shape and arc of its own.

Disgust, like anything else, can be expressed and appreciated in degrees and shades.

The Trump joke is more like a hard, filed bit of rage shot from a nail gun.

But it doesn't have much to do with the movie, which is less satirical than other Baron Cohen comedies. For that matter, it's much less offensive than the shocking Barack Obama gag buried in the stylish mayhem of Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Besides, a blunt, rude joke about Trump in a make-believe movie somehow seems less significant than the blunt, rude jokes from this year's presidential campaign: Trump belittles Marco Rubio by calling him "little Marco" – it may even be "l'il Marco," which is worse – and Rubio in turn says Trump is an incontinent old man. Why are candidates modeling their banter on Two and a Half Men? How can a significant and original comic actor, which Baron Cohen certainly is, hope to be genuinely shocking in this new climate?

Well, anyway: Grimsby. Baron Cohen and Mark Strong play brothers who were separated as children and have taken two distinct paths in life. Nobby (Baron Cohen) has stayed behind, living in what seems to be contented squalor in Northern England in Grimsby (a sign tells us it's the sister city to Chernobyl).

He has many children, one named Django Unchained. Another is called Luke, because he has leukemia (just an insurance scam, actually. He's fine). Nobby is a low life, so low the bar is all but touching the floor. Here's a man who enjoys sticking a firecracker up his derrière when he's drunk and happy. But Cohen makes Nobby very likable, indulgently kind with smiling eyes. He's like a slumming Bob Cratchit, with his own fake Tiny Tim.

Costar Strong, basically playing a Jason Statham role with an even balder head, firmer jaw and grimmer personality, is the brother, Sebastian. He's a top-secret agent whose cover is blown when Nobby, having somehow tracked him down, gives him a hug while he's trying to take out an assassin.

From there they race through adventures and incidents involving bioterrorism, hit squads, Gabourey Sidibe (as a hotel maid), testicles, Penélope Cruz (in a wig that makes her look, as someone puts it, like Sharon Osbourne) and a toilet that desperately needs flushing.

Some of this is funny. A fair amount of it – including the toilet joke – isn't. For some reason, there are also sentimental flashbacks to Nobby and Sebastian's sad, traumatic childhood. These play like scenes from Philomena. Given that this is a Baron Cohen movie, that's more outrageous than the elephant vagina.

The Brothers Grimsby opens Friday. Rated R.
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