I recently re-watched the first season of the American incarnation of Da Ali G Show in a rapt state. I am in awe of Sacha Baron Cohen. The depth and scope of his achievement is remarkable. For two incredible seasons in the United States, where he brought the show in 2003 after finding fame in the UK in the late ’90s, Cohen interviewed some of the most savvy people in the world under the pretense of being a weed-smoking, do-rag-sporting idiot named Ali G., all without them calling him out on being anything but what he professed to be. On Da Ali G Show, Cohen transformed the likes of Ralph Nader, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Buzz Aldrin, James Baker, and other luminaries into unwitting straight men for his masterful shtick.
It doesn’t take anything from Cohen’s achievement that Da Ali G Show was written by a staff that was always forced to think three or four steps ahead so they could anticipate what a guest might conceivably say. Of course the writers worked within certain parameters: They didn’t have to worry about, say, Marlon Fitzwater going off on a bizarre digression about elephants in Africa. But human beings are predictable only up to a point. So Cohen obviously had to improvise extensively. Even when he was using his writers’ material, he still had to access an impressive, vast database of quips and one-liners and deliver them so flawlessly that they appear to be the organic, real sentiments of a genuine idiot, not a chameleon playing one. All the while, Cohen was careful never to betray the manners, breeding, and intelligence that would mark him as a well-educated, upper-middle-class British Jew. Most impressively, Cohen was able to perform this dazzling mental and psychological mimicry opposite other human beings who had no idea what kind of idiocy might fall out of his mouth. That was the essence of Da Ali G Show—the exhilaration of the moment, that intoxicating sense that anything might happen.
The high-wire nature of Cohen’s act obscured the sometimes-hacky nature of his material. Cohen’s shenanigans as Ali G, Borat, or fashion reporter Brüno intermittently inspired a sort of double laugh. Viewers might laugh at the stupidity of Cohen-as-Ali G referring to the late Martin Luther King as Martin Luther Vandross, but they can also laugh at themselves for finding something so transparently stupid so funny. That’s the essence of Cohen’s Ali G shtick: It’s lowbrow humor, brilliantly and thoughtfully executed. Da Ali G Show only looks dumb, and where Sacha Baron Cohen is concerned, looks can be deceiving.
The exhilaration of the moment is missing entirely from 2002’s Ali G Indahouse, an ill-fated attempt to expand Cohen’s audience by transforming the title character from a sneaky secret satirist into a cuddly big-screen hero before he took his show to the United States. The film went straight to home video in the U.S., where it has sleepily been failing to pick up a cult over the past few years, in spite of all Cohen’s subsequent success.
Ali G Indahouse begins by removing everything that makes the character special. The interchange between the real and unreal that gave Da Ali G Show its transgressive thrill is gone. We’re now firmly in the land of make-believe. Ali G is no longer a fictional character in the real world having real conversations; everything is now fake, so the stakes are automatically lower.
Cohen set the bar so high for himself with Da Ali G Show that it almost feels like cheating when he’s surrounded by other actors. The danger is gone. It might be intimidating to act opposite Michael Gambon, but Gambon can hopefully be counted upon to read his lines and hit his marks. Even if he improvises, Cohen knows what to expect; the excitement of his in-character interviews came in part from one party not knowing they were half of an impromptu comedy team.
Ali G Indahouse inexplicably takes its protagonist away from his job in the media and makes him an instructor at a rec center where he teaches a class on “Keeping It Real” (his oft-repeated mantra) and big-ups his young charges for staying off crack for eight years, largely because they haven’t yet reached their eighth birthdays. Alas, the rec center is in danger of closing. Clearly only one thing can save it: a ragtag team of multicultural breakdancers winning the top prize at a climactic, film-closing dance-off. A ragtag team of multicultural breakdancers isn’t at hand, however, so Cohen stages a hunger strike to save the rec center, which brings him to the attention of a scheming politician played by Charles Dance.
Dance has Cohen run for MP of his hometown, and everything goes predictably wrong. “All the bitches in the house say ‘ho’,” he tells the denizens of a meeting of a feminist alliance. He rubs the woman behind an anti-bullying campaign the wrong way by antagonizing an overweight child. At a groundbreaking ceremony, he answers a call to “lay down a brick” by pulling down his pants and taking a dump. He behaves, in other words, in a manner unbecoming of an elected individual.
In a Hail Mary move seldom seen in political circles, Cohen tries to salvage a disastrous debate by accusing his opponent of sucking off a horse. In an astonishing coincidence, his opponent did end up on the business end of a horse’s cock after falling off the horse during a hunting trip, but it was all a simple misunderstanding. (Bestiality, incidentally, proves a recurring theme: at the beginning of the film, Cohen is awakened by his dog greedily lapping at his crotch.) Cohen’s opponent nevertheless quits in disgust, paving the way for Cohen’s paradigm-shifting victory. Cohen has somewhat astonishingly made a comedy about British politics wholly devoid of political satire.
Dance props Cohen up to hurt the popularity of Prime Minister Michael Gambon, who inexplicably takes a shine to the young moron and gives great credence to every bonehead thing he says. Cohen quickly, unbelievably becomes Gambon’s closest advisor. He even gets to bang his girlfriend in the Prime Minister’s bedroom, a plot point nearly as important to the film as Cohen’s rival having performed oral sex on a horse.
Cohen’s unlikely ascent gives the filmmakers a massive canvas to work with. They can take Cohen anywhere and have him do anything. Their powers and his are limitless. So what do the filmmakers do with Cohen’s new prominence as a man essentially given carte blanche to recreate his homeland however he sees fit? They have him watch lots of confiscated pornography alongside his friends get the UN high by slipping high-quality marijuana into its tea supply. Oh, and they get Charles Dance to say “I am a bell end… I like to take it up the batty. Yes, I do. It feel really nice and is me favorite. I used to be a girl and wear knicks. Honest. Ask me mum,” as if each successive word drives a spike deeper into his tortured cerebral cortex.
Oh, and they have Ali G. meet Borat for the anticlimax of the century.
There’s an impish subversion in having serious actors deliver such ridiculous material, but having an actor like Michael Gambon lustily play a scene where his comments about international politics are misinterpreted as interracial gay boasting by a horrified fancy soirée proves an empty victory. In its final act, Ali G Indahouse devolves into a strange comic caper film where Cohen and his buddies attempt to steal an incriminating tape from Dance. Martin Freeman of The Office plays Cohen’s best friend and sidekick; though he looks and acts like Cohen, he has all the authority and conviction of a small child dressed like Ali G for Halloween.
It’s never an encouraging sign when you can single out the laughs in a comedy. It’s even more discouraging when you can literally single out the only laugh-out-loud funny moment in a movie that aspires to do nothing more than wring some cheap laughs out of the public’s enduring amusement over dongs, weed, and the magic and mystery of the bathroom. Not coincidentally, Ali G Indahouse’s only funny line is also the only one that genuinely satirizes clueless middle-class white co-option of West Caribbean and American black culture: At the end of the movie, Cohen says of Dance, “He’s a criminal, and not even the good kind that sells drugs and does drive-bys.” In Borat, the title character’s ignorance helped expose the prejudices and preconceptions of those he encountered; here, the butt of the joke is invariably Cohen, or one of the interchangeable stuffed shirts. Indahouse never even aspires to satire. It sets the bar so low for itself that it almost can’t help but clear it.
I re-watched Ali G Indahouse with that profound disappointment endemic to experiences where extraordinarily talented people fail to live up to their potential. Cohen is reduced to playing a road-show Groucho Marx opposite an endless series of Margaret Dumonts just waiting to have their bourgeois sensibilities offended and their monocles shattered. Thankfully, Cohen is a smart enough man to have learned volumes from his mistakes here. The interplay between the real and the faux-real was back in Borat, and with it, Cohen’s singular genius.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure