Come on, England! Sacha Baron Cohen and his fellow yobs watch the big game in The Brothers Grimsby.

If you’ve heard anything about The Brothers Grimsby, it’s probably that the movie has a joke in which Donald Trump contracts AIDS. Supposedly the studio that’s putting out the film (Sony) has been trying to bury the American release of this British spy thriller-comedy because the filmmakers have insisted that the joke be left in. I don’t know how true this is: As we saw in the 2014 Sony hack, the studio does seem to have been run by skittish types recently. On the other hand, maybe they’re just trying to bury the movie because it’s bad. It flopped resoundingly when it was released in its native Britain a few weeks ago. Having seen it, I can say that that happened for solid reasons, though I did find those reasons enlightening.

It’s about two estranged orphaned brothers whose name is not Grimsby — rather, they both hail from the real-life port city whose name and fittingly cheerless post-industrial atmosphere have made it a punchline across England for at least a century. Sebastian Graves (Mark Strong) got adopted into a wealthy London family and is now a crack MI6 agent. Carl “Nobby” Butcher (Sacha Baron Cohen) got left behind in the foster system and is now an unemployed soccer hooligan who lives with his girlfriend (Rebel Wilson) and nine kids, only some of whom are his. When Nobby finally tracks down Sebastian, he’s Hoovered into a spy plot with a shadowy cartel trying to assassinate Hollywood actress/philanthropist Rhonda George (Penélope Cruz).

OK, big problem here: Baron Cohen is the product of a privileged upbringing that includes a degree from Christ’s College, Cambridge. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with an actor from this background portraying a yob, nor even with that actor wearing a bowl cut and mutton chops that you could stab someone to death with. However, there’s a big difference between playing a working-class person and presuming to speak for the working classes, which is what this movie and its headlining star (who’s also a screenwriter) do. Nobby’s a welfare cheat whose idea of parenting is advising his kids to vape before they start smoking, while his Grimsby pals embody the stereotype of English soccer hooligans, a bunch of sweaty fat guys wearing beer-soaked jerseys that are several sizes too tight. The villains of this piece are bent on exterminating the poor people of the world, but the poor people here are presented with such little dignity that you wonder what the world would be losing. The movie makes a late U-turn and tries to make them out as the heroes who foil the spy plot, and it isn’t the least bit convincing. The climax is set at an event like the World Cup soccer final, which the movie seems to think would be attended mostly by poor people. If Baron Cohen really believes that, he’s as out of touch as the rich people he’s trying to satirize. That, bad timing, and low-quality CGI are why the Trump joke misses.


(Speaking of out of touch, the filmmakers also seem to think that a Hollywood star would be named Rhonda. Yeesh.)

To make everything worse, this movie isn’t funny. Whereas Borat and Brüno were vehicles for revealing other people’s prejudices, Nobby is just a buffoon. You’d think that he’d have some sort of intelligence or resources to contribute to Sebastian’s work, but no such luck. Director Louis Leterrier has a background in action movies (The Transporter, Now You See Me) that you can easily pick up on in the opening sequence, shot mostly from a camera worn by Sebastian while he dispatches a whole bunch of bad guys during a mission. However, Leterrier has no feel for comedy, and this conspires with the weak material to produce interminable routines when Sebastian gets shot in the scrotum with a poison dart or when the brothers get trapped inside an elephant’s vagina. (Don’t ask.) This international spy thriller is shot in locations in South Africa and Chile, yet the director fails to make much use of them.

A deluxe supporting cast (which also includes Isla Fisher, Gabourey Sidibe, and Ian McShane) gets thrown into this, seemingly without regard for whether or not they fit their roles. Wilson, at least, injects enough energy into her all-too-brief part to make you ask whether The Brothers Grimsby might have been improved with her in the lead role. That should tell you how wrong this movie goes.

[box_info]The Brothers Grimsby
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong. Directed by Louis Leterrier. Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston, and Peter Baynham. Rated R.[/box_info]