Judge Bryan Byun has a keen eye for satire... and this movie poked it with a sharp stick.
"I've got two words for you: 'Keep it real!' And that's two because 'it' is just an abbreviation."—Ali G
If you've been living in a cave for the past few years—or happen to be one of the hordes of unwitting politicians, celebrities, and distinguished figures who've fallen prey to Ali G—you might think that Ali's outrageously dimwitted gangsta wannabe persona is for real. But Ali G is merely the stage persona of British comedy mastermind Sacha Baron Cohen, whose schtick is staging mock interviews with subjects (the more dignified the better) who have no idea that Cohen is playing a character. The poor patsies' reactions to Ali G (or Cohen's other character, Borat the befuddled Kazakhstani TV reporter) range from confused silence to outright hostility; it's a simple but brilliant bit of satire that manages to stay fresh through countless repetitions.
Of course, Ali G's ability to shock depends on his subjects' being unaware of who the character is, which has become more and more unlikely as the character's popularity has skyrocketed. Apparently having exhausted his pool of targets in the U.K., Ali G invaded American shores with HBO's Da Ali G Show, the success of which has demonstrated that gangsta wannabe-ism is truly universal.
Given the notoriety of the Ali G persona, it was only a matter of time before he made the jump to the big screen. Given the fate of most such crossovers (like, for instance, the past dozen or so failed comedies based on Saturday Night Live sketches), it shouldn't be surprising that 2002's Ali G Indahouse enjoyed only a brief theatrical run before being relegated to the video rental shelves.
Facts of the Case
Unlike the Ali G TV shows, which have thrown the character into real-world situations, Ali G Indahouse is a work of fiction through and through, taking us behind the cameras and into Ali's world (my theory is that the film is a sort of prequel to the TV series, taking place before he became the world's worst interviewer). Ali lives at home with his grandmother, hangs out with a group of even more pathetic "gangsta" poser buddies (they call themselves the "West Side Massive"), engages in turf wars with the rival East Side Massive gang, and teaches a class for kids in "keeping it real" at a local youth center.
When the youth center is slated for demolition, Ali G springs into motion, launching a hilariously inept protest that brings him to the attention of Britain's conniving Deputy Prime Minister (Charles Dance), who seeks to use Ali as the unknowing pawn in a plan to bring down the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon) and take his place. The idea is to make Ali a member of Parliament (as part of the Prime Minister's attempt to "keep it real" and connect with younger Britons), where he'll screw up so badly that the P.M. will be discredited. As one might expect, this evil plan backfires when Ali's blunderings only serve to make him—and the Prime Minister—more popular with each act of public stupidity.
Two questions arise from watching this film. How did someone with such keen comedic instincts and knack for biting satire as Sacha Baron Cohen manage to create (Cohen co-wrote the screenplay) a film that lacks nearly everything that makes his TV show so subtly brilliant? And how did he convince an actor of Michael Gambon's stature to appear in this film? (A related question might be how he got Charles Dance to sign onto a film in which one of the pivotal moments is Ali squatting over a prone Dance's face…and farting.)
Gambon and Dance are both evidently good sports with healthy senses of humor—and evidently can't pass up a paycheck. It's the first question that continues to baffle me. It's as if the film medium has jolted Cohen into losing his nerve, and he's chosen to play it safe with a cookie-cutter story and gags that shatter the careful balance between crass humor and straight-faced irony that he maintains so well in his TV series.
Da Ali G Show works because so much of the humor is derived from Ali's interactions with real people. When Ali asks the stupidest questions imaginable to, say, former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Gahli, the laughs are all the more plentiful because the answers are unscripted, and the joke is rooted firmly in the real world, in which anything can happen. Taking Ali G and sticking him into a scripted film, with actors playing the butts of the joke and responding to Ali with scripted lines, sucks every bit of spontaneity and insanity out of the premise.
The lack of real-world spark wouldn't be such a crippling factor if the story itself weren't so awful. The "idiot savant" plot is so utterly rote, so lacking in originality or cleverness, that it causes me physical pain to watch. Ali G Indahouse is sort of like the developmentally disabled offspring of Being There meets The Hudsucker Proxy, replicating those (and countless other) films' storylines and characters with almost zero attempt to deviate from the formula.
Without the blistering satire, all that's left is outrageous scatological humor that leans heavily on Ali G's established character traits (he's a momma's boy who fancies himself a street tough; he's a nebbish who tries to pass himself off as a devastating ladies' man) and tries to outdo the Farrelly Brothers in terms of sheer grossness. (There's an early gag involving Ali G being orally pleasured by his dog that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the film.) It's not that these jokes, or Ali G's persona, aren't funny, because they are—at least, sometimes—but that the whole Ali G concept has been turned into mere stoner-comedy fodder.
Ali G Indahouse makes its belated appearance on DVD with an anamorphic widescreen transfer (a full-screen version is also available) that features some wonderfully brilliant, vivid colors and a clear, unblemished print. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and is generally excellent, representing the bass-heavy soundtrack quite well, although dialogue (which is thick with British accents and slang) is often muddled and lost in the mix.
There's a pretty good selection of extra features on the disc, including a number of deleted scenes and outtakes—quite funny if you liked the film, rather draggy if you didn't—and an amusing (though not quite as "side-splitting" as the DVD back cover promises) audio commentary featuring Cohen and Martin Freeman (who plays Ali's buddy Ricky C) speaking in character, à la Spinal Tap. There's also a behind-the-scenes video diary featuring Ali G that's much closer to the original concept of the character and is arguably funnier than the main feature. Rounding out the extras is a brief, funny-but-useless featurette on how to talk like Ali G, a photo gallery, and a set of trailers and teasers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As a film, Ali G Indahouse is an abject failure. But as a showcase for the Ali G character, it's not entirely horrible. Although it reduces Ali to the level of an overexposed SNL character, it does deliver much of what makes the cluelessly offensive doofus so endearing and funny in the first place. I don't want to give away the funniest jokes, but scenes involving Ali addressing a group of feminists and Ali debating a political opponent on a chat show capture at least some of the TV show's transgressive appeal.
Ali G Indahouse reminds me strongly of the Jerky Boys movie that come out in 1995, at the tail end of that comic duo's fifteen minutes of fame. Like Ali G, the Jerky Boys, who specialized in prank calls, depended on real-life victims for their comedy, and their improvisational brilliance was the heart and soul of their appeal. The movie took that wild energy and stuffed it into a box, killing what was smart and unique about their comedy and leaving only the crass, tasteless jokes. I would have thought that Cohen would be savvy enough to avoid that trap, but no such luck.
Indahouse is unlikely to appeal to anyone outside of Ali G's existing audience, but if you're already a fan of our hapless hip-hop hero, then you may be able to overlook the film's crippling inadequacies and wring some laughs out of Ali's first (and probably last) cinematic adventure.
The court finds Ali G Indahouse guilty of failing to keep it real. Respect.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Characters Ali G and Ricky C
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