My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
With his pioneering work on Da Ali G Show and Borat!, Sacha Baron Cohen set the bar prohibitively high for himself by making comedies where he risked serious physical injury for the sake of laughter. In his HBO series and star-making cinematic vehicle, Cohen wasn’t just an unusually funny and fearless comic performer. He was also a daredevil, a performance artist, and the closest thing to Andy Kaufman since the man himself.
Cohen seems to be operating on a different, infinitely more challenging and tricky comic frequency than anyone else. He is a true comic original, but he’s also a victim of his success and ubiquity. Cohen’s specialty involved playing fictional characters like Bruno, Ali G, and Borat in real-life situations. But when Borat! made the British chameleon an international superstar, it also reduced his ability to fool an increasingly wised-up public.
In that respect, The Dictator, Cohen’s first theatrical vehicle after exhausting the cinematic possibilities posed by his holy trinity of goofballs represented a challenge at once greater and lesser than Cohen’s previous two movies. Cohen no longer had to fool ordinary people into thinking he was an effeminate fashion reporter, a racist Eastern European half-wit, or a hip-hop dullard. The ambush element of his comedy was gone and with it a lot of the danger and edge that characterized Borat! Without that novelty, Cohen was just another funny man trying to get the most out of a script and his collaborators.
Thankfully, The Dictator was funny enough to excuse its conventional nature. The same, however, cannot be said of 2016’s The Brothers Grimsby, Cohen’s next movie. Grimsby was a global critical and commercial dud in part because it is so unashamedly British. The film loudly announces its terminal Englishness early on by featuring Blur’s “Parklife,” an ode to working-class British life so purposefully, intentionally English that it doubles as a fuck-you to the notion that British stars must tamp down their national identity for the sake of all-important American sales.
In Grimsby, Cohen plays a distinctly English version of a comedy perennial: the oversexed, undereducated, ethically challenged dumb, poor white dude. If he were American, the character would probably live in the South and love him some NASCAR or reside in the Midwest and be a proud Juggalo. But he is instead an overly proud resident of the titular English town, which, like Kazakhstan before it, understandably has mixed feelings about being depicted by Cohen as a hilariously backward pit of ignorance, poverty, and bad taste.
Grimsby wasn’t just a movie the world rightly rejected. It doubled as the spectacularly unsuccessful product launch of Norman “Nobby” Butcher (Cohen), a Liam Gallagher look-alike and father of many illegitimate children. Though an unabashed welfare cheat with some unorthodox ideas about what is and is not appropriate for children, Nobby loves his white trash brood and his equally trashy girlfriend, Dawn (Rebel Wilson). Nobby’s love of family extends to pining desperately for the return of his long-lost brother. The brothers were separated as children, and unbeknownst to Nobby, his brother has grown up to be Sebastian Graves (Mark Strong), a fiendishly efficient Jason Bourne/James Bond-style killing machine and exemplar of macho self-assurance. The antithetical existences of these polar opposites end up colliding when Nobby reconnects with his brother just in time to screw up an important mission.
Cohen’s previous three vehicles were directed by Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm veteran Larry Charles. But Grimsby was helmed by Louis Leterrier, an actual action auteur who gives the film the same manic, amped-up slickness he brought to the first two Transporter movies. The action here is played completely straight: The idea is to have a sketch-comedy dullard crash a legitimately badass action movie and wreak merry comic havoc. Grimsby pulls off the feat of looking and feeling exactly like a straight action movie of the Luc Besson school, but the juxtaposition of stone-faced action and lowbrow, nutsack-in-the-face comedy is never as funny as the movie desperately needs it to be.
In Strong, Grimsby has a bona fide tough guy who can pull off action with aplomb, but what the part really cries out for is the winking self-awareness Jason Statham brings to his movies—that understated but palpable sense that he understands and even luxuriates in the ridiculousness of his world. Then again, Grimsby eschews winking self-awareness in favor of straight-faced conviction, and on that level Strong is a better fit for the movie than Statham might have been.
Action isn’t the only thing Grimsby takes surprisingly seriously for a comedy where a pair of mismatched brothers must contend with the angry, purposeful thrusts of a giant elephant penis for what feels like a solid half-hour. Grimsby is littered with perversely serious, even dour and depressing flashbacks to the boys’ tragicomic, but mostly just tragic, childhoods. Imagine if Borat! inexplicably decided that it also needed an emotional angle, some pathos to go along with all the scatology, so it included three or four completely dramatic scenes. This alternate universe version of Borat! would, for example, explore the early sexual trauma that led to Borat’s sister becoming a prostitute and feature genuine love scenes between Borat and his wife. Contemplate this soft and sappy alternate Borat! and you have a sense of how misguided and unsuccessful Grimsby’s attempts at pathos are.
Grimsby has the audacity to ask us to feel for the sad, family-craving little boy inside the white-trash joke of a man who seems to spend much of his adult life with a firecracker jammed up his ass. It wants us to be emotionally invested in the brothers’ relationship but also to laugh at their endless humiliation. It wants to make us laugh and to make us feel, and fails decisively on both counts.
The English hooligan angle undoubtedly limited the film’s commercial potential internationally. It’s easy to see why a film that set out to amuse the blokes who enjoy a pint at the pub with their mates, and pretty much only those people, failed to catch on with international audiences the way Borat! did. Like so much of Cohen’s earlier, better work, Grimsby is fascinated by the comic possibilities presented by men who identify as heterosexual finding themselves, through an unlikely series of events, suddenly faced with a pair of testicles in their face, or a giant penis, or something foreign in their rear.
Grimsby has at least two set pieces devoted to gay panic jokes. One involves the brothers being confronted with one giant elephant penis after another after they make the mistake of hiding inside an elephant’s vagina while on the run from bad guys during a detour in Africa. In another, Nobby must suck out poison from his brother’s bathing-suit area in order to save his life, but some blokes stumble upon the brothers and understandably get the wrong impression.
The Brothers Grimsby is the second film I’ve recently seen with a gag like that. By sheer coincidence, I watched the hitman action-comedy Mr. Right immediately before The Brother Grimsby. In the Max Landis-written flop, onlookers stumble across a hitman played by Sam Rockwell in what appears to be the act of sexual congress with another gentlemen and stumble away in shock. Despite being groaningly mediocre and far too clever and self-satisfied for its own good, Mr. Right at least puts its own meta twist on this mothballed gag by having Rockwell comment on how homophobic those shocked onlookers must have been to be so offended and horrified by something as natural as two men making love.
The throwaway line feels like an ad-lib as well as a guilty acknowledgment of the hack and overdone nature of gay panic jokes and jokes rooted in the idea that it’s still somehow hilarious if straight dudes are forced by circumstance to do things traditionally associated with gay sex. There is no such acknowledgment in The Brothers Grimsby, no meta wink to the audience to let them know that the filmmakers at least have the decency to be a little ashamed, or at least self-conscious, to have not just a gag hinging on people mistaking a life-saving act for an act of homosexual incest, but an entire set piece hinging on audiences finding the scenario uproarious.
The humor in Grimsby is not solely derived from heterosexual men’s discomfort with penises that are not their own, of both the human and animal variety. No, some of it is also derived from Nobby being sexually attracted to women who do not conform to our culture’s beauty standards. I would like to imagine that in our day and age a gentleman being attracted to a woman who looks like Rebel Wilson is simply a preference, and not an unusual one. Yet Grimsby finds the notion that a heterosexual man would be driven into a hormonal frenzy by a woman who looks like Rebel Wilson or Gabourey Sidibe, rather than co-stars Penelope Cruz and Isla Fisher, inherently funny.
To give Grimsby credit, for a lowbrow comedy whose jokes are overwhelmingly rooted in gay panic and treating the bodies of larger women as walking sight gags, it’s surprisingly good-natured, even sweet at times. Cohen’s affection for both his characters and the trashy milieu they inhabit does seem sincere, but that does not make up for a fatal lack of laughs. From an international commercial standpoint, it’s certainly a big problem that Grimsby’s comedy is so inveterately, unmistakably English. A much bigger problem—a fatal one, in fact—is that the comedy is also just not that funny.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure
My World Of Flops has been a part of The A.V. Club nearly since the beginning, and although this is the final installment here, it’s not quite a goodbye. You can read about more flops, and much more, on Nathan Rabin’s personal website. —ed.