Editor’s note: Kate’s review of Alan Partridge originally ran during last year’s NYFF, but we’re re-running it as the film opens today in limited release.
For the small subset of cinephiles who have long hungered for a major motion picture that places Steve Coogan’s moronic broadcasting character Alan Partridge into a situation resembling the Brendan Fraser-starring 1994 comedy Airheads, Alan Partridge is so perfectly tailor-made for their desires that it’s actually somewhat frightening. (It also doesn’t seem like an actual possibility, but clearly someone thought this was a good idea, or else the film wouldn’t even have been made.)
Coogan has played Partridge for over twenty years now, with the character first appearing on the radio program On the Hour in 1991, and then serving as the centerpiece of his news broadcasting spoof show, The Day Today, which aired on the BBC for one brief seven-episode season back in 1994. Since then, Partridge’s dim bulb reportage has taken him from radio to television and back again, with Coogan’s portrayal of the criminally boring and weirdly entertaining disc jockey and television presenter continuing to be one of his most enduring and reliable comedic creations. Of course it’s about time he got taken hostage.
Director Duncan Lowney’s Alan Partridge returns Partridge to the fictional North Norfolk Digital, his latest radio station home where he hosts the dead boring and highly inappropriate Mid-Morning Matters chat show (despite being dead boring and highly inappropriate, much like Alan himself, the portrayal of the show is absolutely hysterical). Alan seems to have settled into life – he’s got his sponsored Kia to drive around (the car has been pasted with a decal that reads “ALAN PARTRIDGE IS DRIVING THIS KIA”), his personal assistant Lynn (Felicity Montagu, bringing an actual emotional performance to the comedy) to kick around, and a radio show for all his random mess around – but that’s about to change with the revelation that North Norfolk is going corporate. Snatched up by a big conglomerate, North Norfolk is set to become “Shape” radio, a sanitized and relentlessly packaged experience that Alan isn’t quite fit for – which is precisely why he soon sells out fellow DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) when he (accidentally, of course) realizes that one of them has to go.
While it should be a triumph of Alan’s limited capacities that it’s Pat who is kicked to the curb and Partridge who stays on board, the victory is short-lived once an armed Pat crashes a Shape party and takes a wide swathe of station employees hostage. Not realizing Alan contributed to his downfall, Pat demands Alan return to the station and serve as his police go-between. It’s stupid, dangerous, and perfect for capturing instant public attention. Alan, of course, relishes it.
A working knowledge of Coogan’s character is not essential to enjoying Alan Partridge (though the film’s full title, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, was chopped for American audiences, clearly because they couldn’t handle not knowing who either “Alan Partridge” or “Alpha Papa” are), and the film spends much of its first act getting us deep into the Partridge lifestyle. Coogan, of course, excels as Partridge – he’s fully comfortable in playing the Anchorman-like moronic, yet beloved veteran news guy, and he’s able to bring weirdly emotional moments to a man who should be without many redeeming qualities. He’s also fully comfortable playing up the grosser aspects of Alan, going so far as getting naked from the waist down for one of the film’s funniest bits, one that also capitalizes on Alan’s trademark idiocy and inability to reason.
Yet the film never totally embraces the humor of its situation – seriously, Airheads did this stuff better – and things quickly go stale in the film’s middle act. There are certainly some good “we’re trapped here” gags, including Pat’s demand for a new jingle as created by his hostages, the discovery of a stowaway, and a long sequence where Alan imagines stealing Pat’s gun and saving the day, but it’s mostly retread and boredom. Even Coogan’s comedy can’t save it, and by the time Alan Partridge limps into its very funny and very smartly put-together final act, most of the shine is off and most of the audience has probably considered changing (digital radio) stations.
Alan Partridge does manage to end on a high note, a somewhat gross, totally inappropriate, oddly surreal high note, just the type that Coogan’s character excels at. The film is a must-see for Partridge acolytes (read: the entire UK) and Coogan fans, and it’s certainly a fair enough entry for neophytes, even if the urge to watch Airheads afterwards is uncomfortably strong.
The Upside: Steve Coogan continues to amuse in one of his most iconic roles; the film’s basic plotline is very funny, the last act brings both plot and characters together with ease and plenty of chuckles
The Downside: The middle of the film drags and recycles material and gags for limited laughs; most of the film’s other characters are disappointingly one-note; the tone never quite reaches a happy equilibrium
On the Side: The film’s producers asked for special permission from the band Marillion to craft a running joke about one of the station’s most straight-laced employees being the group’s former drummer. The band liked the clips that they saw and gave the production the go-ahead.