There’s a bit, late on in Grimsby, when Sacha Baron Cohen’s Nobby gets hold of a gun and finds it surprisingly easy to shoot people. “I understand why you love guns so much,” he tells his brother, Mark Strong’s Sebastian. “It completely detaches you from the guilt of your actions.” The bathos this creates is a good example of how in comedy a big laugh legitimises just about anything, here allowing you to forget quite happily that the main character is no longer a bungling chancer but an actual killer. I felt the same about the rest of it; the fact it made me laugh just about earned it a free pass for being, at times, scabrously horrible.
Baron Cohen is probably more expert than anyone at the film with big, crowd-pleasing laughs. Some of them are aimed unjustly, but they hit the spot. Effectively, he co-opts the audience into laughing with him even when we’re instinctively queasy about the joke’s morality, so we can’t very well take the moral high ground. The bastard.
But none of these big showcase laughs work without a good-hearted story behind them, and it’s here that Baron Cohen and his writing partners Phil Johnston and Peter Baynham really deliver. It’s a film about the simple value of family: Nobby and Sebastian were separated as kids (shown in flashbacks featuring some excellent child acting that’d be heart-rending apart from the overall tone), Nobby staying in Grimsby and Sebastian going to London to live with a rich family. With all the breaks, he becomes a Bond-style uberspy; Nobby a drunk football supporter, serial father and benefits cheat.
This characterisation is the first step that makes you feel uneasy: there are a lot of choices that steer us towards Benefits Street territory and there’s the uncomfortable suspicion we’re being encouraged to accept and laugh along with tabloid cliches of working-class life. It’s hard to swallow from its writer (a Haberdashers’ and Cambridge alumnus, and in general not short of a few quid), and this is the least successful section. Ricky Tomlinson, John Thomson and Johnny Vegas show up to play working-class archetypes, none bothering to relocate his accent from the North West, making you wonder whether they didn’t wince a bit before signing up.
It gets better. Once Nobby locates Sebastian he fouls up his assassination mission, and delivers the first huge laugh when you see the horrific effect of his misdirected bullet. It’s at this point Baron Cohen’s got you: you shouldn’t have laughed, but you bloody did, and now you’re as complicit as he is. It’s one of a few jokes – two later examples involve an elephant and an impromptu goatee beard – that layer one extremity on top of another in quick succession just when you thought the first one was bad enough, and you’d stop to admire the artistry if you weren’t too busy guiltily choking on your popcorn.
The comedy spoof on the serious genre always leans pretty heavily on the ability of the straight character to act it deadpan, and Mark Strong is up to the challenge. All of his actions are consistent with what a superconfident, humourless Special Forces type would do, which gives Baron Cohen licence to bounce off him for the laughs, just as Melissa McCarthy did off Sandra Bullock in The Heat, and Kevin Hart did off Ice Cube in Ride Along. This subgenre isn’t new particularly, but it does seem to be the main type of original comedy being greenlit these days, and there’s a reason it’s popular: the subversion of serious movie tropes can be as satisfying as it is funny. We’re laughing and if we’re even a little savvy we understand why.
Though there are definite missteps along the way, the worst being the limited use of great talents like Rebel Wilson and Gabourey Sidibe, both there essentially to service one recurring fat joke, the latter only for one scene and the former not for much more, it builds to a close with Nobby giving a rallying cry which flags up where the film’s class politics really sit. Even if it does so by adhering to the broad strokes of the iffy first act. Then it smashes you with a crescendo of huge laughs – one aimed at a contemporary target which really brings the house down – and you realise that, for all the gross-out humour and slips into cruelty, you’ve been expertly manipulated. These weren’t just isolated shock gags: there’s great skill in it. Sacha Baron Cohen made you laugh and feel dirty for doing it all at the same time, and now you’re in it up to your neck.