One of the least pleasing traits that movies have taken from television in recent years is a propensity for dopey humour. Dopey comedy is very different from the so-called dumb or trash comedy made famous by the Farrelly Brothers.
Where dumbness is highly physical in the tradition of burlesque, dopeyness is the province of television sitcoms and stand-up comedians. It is relentlessly verbal. And where dumb comedy aims for catharsis through grossing-out, dopey comedy is shambling and brittle, always aiming for a deliberately weak, decrescendo punch line.
Hence the taste, among purveyors of dopeyness, for excessively obvious remarks, or fumbled witticisms that need to be repeated until they are completely dead. And if there are any attempts at physical humour, they will be performed with studied half-heartedness, as if to mock the very idea of old-fashioned, comic grace.
Ali G, the creation of Sacha Baron Cohen, is the King of the Dopes. Everything he says and does in underwhelmingly stupid. Ali G Indahouse, his debut (and hopefully only) film starts with a pleasantly cinematic surprise, as Ali blasts his way through a histrionically American gangsta street scene. Alas, the first deflationary punch line is that this is all just a dream.
Ali finds himself swept up in national politics, a pawn in the game of the scheming Carlton (Charles Dance). Blundering through television appearances, speeches to women's groups and parliamentary debates, Ali eventually becomes an unlikely ally to the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon).
I am not a fan of Ali G's television capers. Too often, the Norman Gunston-style premise of a host running rings around his befuddled interview subjects falls flat. It is even worse when his guests consider themselves hip to the joke and try to be funny.
This dynamic is mercifully absent from the film (the straight guys, Gambon and Dance, maintain straight faces throughout). But, without the talk show antics, what is left for this character to actually do?
Enter the dopey humour, which on this occasion is both Ali's salvation and his crucifixion. Cohen and co-writer Dan Mazer manage to create a story around Ali's rise to political power, which provides a workable scaffolding for the jokes. However, given the flip mode of comedy, absolutely nothing in this story (including Ali's fight to preserve an activity centre for underprivileged kids) is immune from a self-detonating gag.
Apart from a few amusing interruptions where the screen splits and Ali appears to comment upon the story, there is very little that works in this poor excuse for a movie. And is anything more depressingly indicative of the state of modern comedy than the fact that this is a supposed political satire without a single political idea?
© Adrian Martin July 2002