In an endless sea of awkward, mincing low level buffoon characters in modern comedy, the self-consciously dour, antiseptic presence of Alan Partridge still looms large. From his introduction as blissfully ignorant sport anchorperson on 1994’s still awe-inspiringly great The Day Today , to his fantastic one-season disaster chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You, then on to a two season run of Alan settling for life as a daytime radio DJ (I’m Alan Partridge), to countless specials, a webseries and now a feature, the drip has never lost his deluded swagger. Steve Coogan’s portrayal of this pompous shambles is so innate as to easily eclipse his strong dramatic work (last year’s Philomena, 24 Hour Party People) and other comedic turns (his shrewd self-parody in The Trip and Coffee & Cigarettes) where Partridge often peaks through anyway.
I’m loathe to ask why now, not only because I don’t value timeliness nearly as much as I perhaps should, but because more Alan Partridge could never ever be a bad thing. The character’s not stale, and never will be so long as Armando Iannucci and Coogan are writing the things that come out of his mouth. Alan and his long suffering assistant Lynn Benfield (the inimitable Felicity Montagu) are still in a class of funny all their own, this time without the invasive distraction of canned laughter and applause that nearly spoiled I’m Alan Partridge.
The storyline is one of those serviceable things that feels familiar to the TV-to-film adaptation approach, yet it’s not nearly as dependent on past reference-checking and over-the-top set pieces as usual. Partridge’s snug little gig at his Norwich radio station is threatened when the station is taken over by a corporate interest, changing the station name to Shape (“The way you want it to be”) and clearing out the dead wood. Turns that means either Alan or gruff, folk music spinning DJ Pat Farrell (a dryly funny Colm Meany). Alan being Alan, he does his best to make sure it’s not him. Farrell’s subsequent dismissal sends the man into a rage and he decides to hold the station hostage with a shotgun.
Along with a taste of Mid Morning Matter’s delightfully insipid song intros (“that was soft rock cocaine enthusiasts, Fleetwood Mac” or “Nettles cause em, dock leaves cure em - it’s a Sting, It’s Sting!”) we get a lot of primo Partridge douchery. When a co-worker tries to fist-bump he closes his hand over it as though he were beating him at rock, paper, scissors. Realizing his mistake he decides to critique the practice: “Some people say it’s more hygienic than a handshake, but who’s to say you can’t get shit on your fist?!” Almost every exchange lacks the grace he’s looking for, so he blunders until any kind of transition presents itself. It’s what moves things along, not so much the formulaic movie moments or moral lessons that are packed into the script.
There isn’t anything in the way of realism or even a superficial sense of danger to the situation. The entertainment value lies in the dialogue and little details, and how far Alan will go to save himself and his sense of self, however chaotic his surroundings become. There are some great gags beyond the trenchant brilliance of the lines, which makes the one where they write a jingle to try and appease their captor stand out like a sore thumb. It’s a not a hilariously lousy idea, just an unfunny one (though it’s great when one of the DJs claims he used to drum for Marillion to everyone’s mute astonishment). However, the other more elaborate and/or visual bits are inspired enough that I don’t want to spoil them here.
Alan Partridge is another minor film built off of a major TV phenomenon, but ultimately works out better for it. Why they removed the “Alpha Papa” subtitle for US release is beyond me, but it makes sense to keep things simple. This is less a movie and more of a further-reaching vehicle for people over here who already like or could enjoy the character (part of its success lies in how prerequisite viewing isn’t necessary for it to work). And perhaps more importantly, the film shows how the US market could benefit from seeing some of the great UK comedy of the past twenty some years as is, and not recast with Americans (however funny they may be in their own right). It’s nice to see a classic comedy character left unspoiled for once, even if they’re not necessarily big screen material.