“I told you not to smoke.”
“I thought you just meant crack.”
These were some of the first lines in Sacha Baron Cohen’s recent movie, Grimsby. The comedy sees Nobby (Baron Cohen), an unemployed father of nine living in the northern English fishing town of Grimsby. From the outset we are told he is still searching for his long-lost brother after a 28 year separation. Queue, Sebastian (Strong). At a charity event, Nobby is reunited with his brother – who happens to be an MI6 agent with a surprisingly RP accent. After Nobby causes Sebastian to be blamed for a murder, forcing them on the run, a chain of ‘humorous’ events unfold which culminate in the two brothers making peace and saving the world. Rebel Wilson and Penelope Cruz both made the questionable decision to take minor roles in the movie, though the focus remains on the brothers’ relationship.
The description above makes it seem as though this film has a storyline, albeit a far-fetched one. It does not. The plot is a confused mix of a mocking take on working-class life in Grimsby, a conventional ‘spy-gone-rogue’ tale and an attempt at a heart-warming reunion with the message of family. All of this was paired with outrageous attempts at humour and crude sexual references. For me, it was so bad I had to cover my eyes. Perhaps I was being too harsh, but just one of the vulgar running jokes in this film was that numerous celebrities were diagnosed with AIDS from the blood of a young, wheelchair-bound Palestinian boy, said to be the ‘international symbol of peace.’ These celebrities included Daniel Radcliffe (though not the real one), and Donald Trump, whom, when infected actually roused applause from some members of the cinema audience. Perhaps that tells us more about opinions towards American politics than it does about the entertainment this film offered, but clearly such outrageous humour was, at times, enjoyed by other spectators. Or maybe they were just laughing because they didn’t know what else to do.
Sacha Baron Cohen has been in the press a lot recently after the controversial revival of ‘Ali G’ at the Oscars this year. He affronted the #OscarsSoWhite debate about lack of racial diversity in the nominees for this year’s Academy Awards by referring to himself “just another token black presenter.” He is renowned for his less-than politically correct attempts to use humour to bring attention to social issues, and the characters of Ali G and Borat were received well by critics. So, was that the case in Grimsby? I personally struggle to see how pointed generalisations about a working-class lifestyle will have a positive outcome. Any stereotypes which exist about the people of northern fishing towns are amplified; the opening sequence of the movie sees a queue of people outside the Job Centre, everyone walks around in England football shirts, and Nobby’s son Luke has a shaved head, a ploy for the family to claim benefits for his inexistent leukaemia.
The film does, however raise an interesting point on class inequality. Penelope Cruz’s character turns out to be the evil mastermind has a plan to “cure the world” by infecting all those present at the World Cup final, in her words, “the imbeciles”, with AIDS. In response, Cohen makes a rousing speech to his fellow Grimsby residents about their worth; they are the “scum” responsible for building the hospitals which are closed down by upper-class members of society. Can this be taken as a direct criticism of the current government cuts? He ends with the line, “scum cannot be washed away, ever”; if so, it’s one which still kicks the poor.
The film does reflect on positive aspects of working-class culture in other respects. The sense of community amongst the people of Grimsby means we always see them together, and the theme of family is prominent amongst the characters. We are obliged, in some ways to sympathise with the plight of those who are burdened with the stereotype of being worthless. But overall the film is counter-productive, perpetuating negative assumptions of the ‘idle’ and ‘feckless’ poor who don’t know how to help themselves.
Whilst the film raises interesting arguments regarding social inequality, it failed to do so in a tasteful and productive way. Any attempt at progressive ideas amongst the crude humour were diminished by exaggerated stereotypes and a tiring plotline. If this were Sacha Baron Cohen’s first film, and he wasn’t propped up by past successes, I’m sure he would find himself as jobless as Nobby.