What made his comedy work, once upon a time at least, was a ferocious combination of the highly inappropriate with a sharp satire that cut deep enough to draw blood.
Either misreading audience responses or having been reigned in by Hollywood or whatever combination of moneymen finance an international affair such as “Grimsby,” Baron Cohen has thrown out the satire to concentrate on the inappropriate.
So you get gags about pedophilia, AIDS and far too many about anal penetration while the film itself lacks any edge. So Baron Cohen and his collaborators dream up scenes taking place inside an elephant’s vagina or involving backed-up toilets and misunderstood sexual innuendoes regarding this plumbing problem so as to increase the gross-out factor beloved by his fans.
Yet this all takes place in a world of pure movie fantasy. Whereas Borat and Bruno confronted real people in a recognizable world, “Grimsby” takes place within a badly designed computer shooter game.
The movie’s “pitch” goes something like this: What if James Bond had a cheerful older brother who was a complete screw-up, a terminally unemployed, frequently inebriated football (soccer to Yanks) fan with a brood of kids and no desire for upward mobility.
Thus the film takes place in a MovieWorld of superspys and superassassins. Baron Cohen even hires action director Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter,” “Now You See Me”) to put on screen a low-grade version of this with intrigues, shootouts and explosions in foreign locations.
Unfortunately, the de rigueur maneuvers of such movies — “London Has Fallen” came out only a week ago — are by now so familiar as to breed boredom if not contempt unless done at the scale of a Bourne or Bond.
Thus “Grimsby” switches between twin contrivances: the brothers wondering into numerous shootouts or chases and Baron Cohen character’s capacity for misunderstanding everything that happens in an action-thriller MovieWorld.
Mark Strong, the athletic and handsome actor from such movies as “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Kick-Ass,” plays the younger Grimsby brother, Sebastian, separated as a child from older brother Nobby (Baron Cohen).
Reunited after 28 years, Sebastian is amazed to discover his brother is a layabout and Nobby is amazed to discover his little brother is an MI6 assassin.
Unlike his jet-set brother, Nobby still resides in their hometown of Grimsby (an actual British town), happily ensconced in a house jammed with his nine or ten kids and plus-sized girlfriend Dawn (Rebel Wilson), a mere corner kick from the nearest pub.
Not so strangely perhaps, the scenes that work best take place in his household and Grimsby itself, an oasis of some reality from the video shooter-game the movie descends into. Nobby is much in love with longtime girlfriend, which can only mean more cheerful tykes are on the way.
Everyone is happy with his lot as one lad devours curry on the toilet while another named Luke — short for leukemia, which he pretends to have for dad to chisel weekly welfare checks — has a bare head just like Uncle Sebastian. Another kid is named Django Unchained while a daughter goes by Gangham Style with the appropriate Korean haircut.
Now if somehow Uncle Sebastian had left his MovieWorld to enter this oasis of real people, bringing along his paranoia and suspicions of everybody and everything, than a culture clash comedy might have ensued. Instead it’s the other way around.
Cue spy spoof stuff, which you can trace back to the original jokey “Casino Royale” in 1967 through Austin Powers to last year’s Melissa McCarthy vehicle, “Spy.”
Penélope Cruz drops in for a what amounts to a personal appearance (as she recently did in the equally lamentable “Zoolander 2”) while Gabourey Sidibe is misused in a distinctly unfunny bit as a maid in a South African hotel.
Isla Fisher, Baron Cohen’s wife, is wasted in a role of no consequence, which is a shame given how funny she can be in much better movies.
That Baron Cohen can do better is a given but is he able to do better is the question. A spoof of spy thrillers is just lame. He wasn’t even able to stay interested during the script development stage — he wrote this with Phil Johnston and Peter Baynham — to create a story with any coherence or credible characters other than Nobby and Dawn.
Has he run out of legitimate targets for his brand of anti-PC comedy or is he unable to get any such undertaking off the ground today?
Where is Borat when we truly need him?
Opens: March 11, 2016 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: Columbia Pictures presents in association with LStar Capital and Village Roadshow Pictures presents a Four by Two Films, Working Title, Big Talk Pictures production
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson, Penélope Cruz, Isla Fisher, Gabourey Sidibe, Annabelle Wallis
Director: Louis Leterrier
Screenwriters: Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston, Peter Baynham
Based on a story by: Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston
Producers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Nira Park
Executive producers: Louise Rosner Meyer, Todd Schulman, Phil Johnston, Peter Baynham, James Biddle, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan, Ant Hines, Adam McKay, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Oliver Wood
Music: Erran Baron Cohen, David Buckley
Production designer: Kave Quinn
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Editors: James Thomas, Jonathan Amos
R rating, 83 minutes