Most Americans, even those who follow British comedy from Monty Python to Blackadder, are unlikely to know much about Steve Coogan’s long-running character Alan Partridge. You can think of him kind of like Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report character, but without the right-wing political satire; Alan is all glib narcissism and idiocy. He’s also had a more varied career, popping up over the last thirty years in just about every journalistic position from sports reporter to talk-show host, mostly on the radio but also on television. And now he’s coming to the big screen in Alan Partridge — subtitled Alpha Papa in last August’s British release — which I’m sure would please Alan-the-character to no end.
Alan has been a DJ at North Norfolk Digital for some time, but that comfortable position is upended when the radio station is bought out and re-branded for a young audience as “Shape” — “The Way You Want It To Be” — with all the usual chaos of any corporate takeover. He makes a show of principled solidarity with his co-workers as he walks into the boardroom, but walks out after urging them to “Just Sack Pat”, his colleague (Colm Meany).
Pat is indeed sacked; he returns that evening during a kickoff party, shotguns blazing, and takes the whole station hostage. Alan, being outside with his assistant (Felicity Montagu), is spared. And Pat, unaware that his friend Alan is the reason he’s now unemployed, will only negotiate through him. Of course, the situation quickly becomes a media circus, and Alan isn’t about to let the tragedy of others get in the way of his chance to increase his public profile.
Alan is not just Coogan’s creation, but also that of Armando Iannucci, the comedy writer behind The Thick of It, its movie spinoff In the Loop, and the similar HBO series Veep. Alan Partridge has a similar feel: the humor of discomfort more than that of absurdity. Or, on the other hand, it’s the focus on the discomforting side of the absurdities of life. Like most of Iannucci’s characters, Alan is a magnified and distilled version of some of the less attractive slices of human nature that we might prefer to gloss over. Put this sort of character into a magnified situation — an international political crisis, or an armed hostage scenario — and all the everyday slights and foibles get bigger and more garish; they make us cringe all the harder.
Coogan is even more willing than most to go to these uncomfortable, ugly places; Alan Partridge can be a more abrasive, off-putting character than Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker or Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer. It’s not the style of comedy we’re used to getting on the big screen, even from British films, and it’s not an easy one to pull off smoothly, but if anyone can do it, it’s Steve Coogan.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.