This film review originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on July 18, 2002.
Directed by Mark Mylod
Written by Sacha Baron Cohen & Dan Mazer
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Michael Gambon, Charles Dance & Kellie Bright
A few years ago young British comic Sacha Baron Cohen created the character of “Ali G” for Channel 4 TV in the UK, and recently won a BAFTA award. With his first film Ali G Indahouse – released in Australia in July 2002 – he is the first British Jewish comic I can remember to break the bounds of his home country and export his humour outside of the club circuit.
In Ali G Indahouse, Cohen’s alter-ego Ali G is an unspecified ethnic: is he Indian, black, Jewish, Italian or Hispanic? He refers to himself as black, but his skin is pretty light. The first scene of the film sees him in Los Angeles fantasising about being a Hispanic “low rider”. Think Ben Stiller mixed with a bit of Adam Sandler, and a touch of Austen Tayshus. With his ethnic identity, Cohen is following a noble path blazed by Jewish entertainers as diverse as Al Jolson (who sang in the 1920’s wearing blackface) and comic Lenny Bruce, who once declared (in the 1960s) that Jewish identity issues are similar for all minority groups: “If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you are Jewish …. Negroes are all Jews. Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are all Jews.”
Don’t be mis-lead: Ali G Indahouse is not a terribly sophisticated film, even if Sacha Baron Cohen’s character has a long pedigree. This is low-level comedy, full of farts, long strings of jokes about male and female anatomy and various bodily functions. The plot – sort of an extended TV skit – is mostly an excuse for Cohen to prance and dance about.
The story follows Ali G, who is unemployed and lives in West Staines with his Nan. His biggest excitement is his loving girlfriend “Me Julie” (Kellie Bright) and his alternative boy scout club that he runs in the local leisure centre, which is threatened with closure. After chaining himself to a fence in protest, Ali G is spotted by the scheming Deputy Prime Minister (Charles Dance) and encouraged to run for Parliament in a by-election. Amazingly, Ali G wins and goes off to London, where he soon becomes indispensable to the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon), as the youthful voice on issues of the day.
Ali G is simple, but in the best tradition of the simple “everyman” (think a post-modern Charlie Chaplin), his down-to-earth philosophy (“keep it real”) and genuine ideals make him triumphant. Scandals abound, and by the end Ali G is needed to stand up for his ideals and save the day.
Dramatically, Ali G Indahouse really does not work as a film and Ali’s character never transcends two dimensions – although I am not certain it supposed to. It’s core audience (boys from 12 to 18) probably won’t care much, simply enjoying the bright costumes, the non-stop gross sexual and excretory gags and the simple homilies. The most fascinating thing about the film is Ali G (Cohen) himself: his fascination and identification with American black & Hispanic culture as a statement of youthful rebellion. There is also a wonderful juxtaposition between over-the-top Ali G and the uptight (and beautifully acted) characters played by Charles Dance and Michael Gambon. Dance and Gambon (reportedly fans of the TV series; why else would they have agreed to appear in this?) give this lightweight film a dramatic grounding it really does not deserve.
Click here for my review of Cohen’s film Borat.