Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Borat, says he approaches comedy "mathematically"

Quite a lot of research went into comedy The Brothers Grimsby which, despite the jokes, has a serious message about family, says its star and writer Sacha Baron Cohen

Sacha Baron Cohen (far left) and Mark Strong as brothers in The Brothers Grimsby.
Sacha Baron Cohen (far left) and Mark Strong as brothers in The Brothers Grimsby.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

The Brothers Grimsby, like Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009) before it, is stuffed full of outrageous scenes. But its star and writer Sacha Baron Cohen insists that he does not include gratuitous moments. He claims to approach his wild comedy in an almost methodical manner.

"I like to look at the genre of the movie we are trying to do. Borat is a road movie, for example, and it's a buddy comedy, set within the format of the documentary," he says.

"First of all, I analyse the common themes of those types of movies. So, in a buddy comedy, always in the middle of the movie, there is a bust- up between the buddies, whether it is a physical or verbal fight.

"So, with Borat, I thought of ways that those turning points could be funny. We had this idea of a naked fight. Then I thought, 'Great, we are going to take that fight and put it in that middle bust-up.' Then the funny scene has a story purpose.

"It doesn't seem like a gratuitous scene even though it was a fat man sitting on my face. Basically, you try to engineer these comic set-pieces into the movie."

This was a rare interview Cohen gave out of character. Ordinarily, the 44-year-old Englishman likes to do his interviews as the man he plays on screen.

I was thinking about James Bond: ‘Who would be the worst brother for James Bond to have?’ The answer was Nobby. I almost thought of it mathematically.

SACHA BARON COHEN, on creating an antithesis to the super spy in his movie The Brothers Grimsby

His new film revolves around Cohen's character, Nobby, an unemployed football fan from the depressed northern British town of Grimsby. He has nine children and a girlfriend he loves dearly.

There is only one thing missing in his life - his little brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong), from whom he was separated as a child.

After 28 years, Nobby finally tracks down his brother and is unaware that Sebastian is now an MI6 assassin.

After a disastrous reunion, in which Nobby accidentally ruins Sebastian's life, the brothers uncover a plot to destroy the world.

In order to save humanity and his brother, Nobby embarks on a global mission and transforms from lovable idiot to brave secret agent.

Some of the set-pieces in The Brothers Grimsby are truly outrageous. Even Cohen's wife, actress Isla Fisher, who stars in the film as a straitlaced MI6 administrator, was surprised at their content.

"I was shocked," she says amid laughter during her interview. "Although, I was shocked in the best possible way."

Cohen, who was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Borat, would like audiences to look beyond the film's shocking pranks and pratfalls, though - he says that he adopted a "mathematical" approach to the comedy set-up.

"With this film, I was thinking about James Bond: 'Who would be the worst brother for James Bond to have?' The answer was Nobby. I almost thought of it mathematically.

"What is the opposite to James Bond?" he asks rhetorically.

"James Bond is cold. So Nobby is warm. Bond has got no family and so we give Nobby a massive family. The secret agent doesn't speak. So Nobby is a blabbermouth. An assassin has no empathy for anyone. Nobby is full of love.

"If you think of all these characters, Jason Bourne, James Bond, any of these super spies, then really they are guys with a form of Asperger's. They have no empathy for anyone. They have no respect for people. They treat them as objects."

The Brothers Grimsby, therefore, is a film that seeks to humanise Strong's MI6 "automaton" through a relationship with his lovable, long-lost brother.

"The first thing is that the movie has to be funny so I make a movie that I want to see," Cohen says.

"Increasingly, we live in a stratified society where the haves and have-nots are more and more separated. I liked the idea of the juxtaposition of a spy who hails from the establishment saddled with his working-class brother whom he despises."

To further emphasise that he does not just go for cheap laughs, he says he does quite a lot of research for his films.

For Grimsby, he went to "a lot of northern British towns and met real-life Nobbies, people who had nine to 12 kids, and often they are despised even within their own communities because they are seen as people who are trying to abuse the (social welfare) system".

Instead, he found a lot of people who love their kids.

"There is this mythology that these people are often on benefits because they are lazy and scroungers. Actually, if you go to a place like Grimsby, you realise that the basic industries have shut down," he says of the former thriving fishing port.

"These businesses have been shut down for decades, sometimes, so you are getting the second generation of unemployed people.

"And these fathers and mothers have a choice, which is they can leave their kids and work in a different city or stay in the city and claim benefits.

"So it was interesting to get that different perspective."

Ultimately, Cohen adds, the story has heart.

"It is a story about family and the importance of family over anything else, so there is quite a sweet message among all the jokes."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2016, with the headline 'Seriously wild and outrageous'. Subscribe