British comedy has a fine tradition of endlessly watchable twits. Off the top of my head, some of my favorites are Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers, Arnold Rimmer of Red Dwarf, David Brent of The Office, and Alan Partridge of way too many shows to list. Admittedly, I don’t think I’ve even seen half of the Alan Partidge appearances on British TV, but from what I’ve seen, I’ve liked.
It’s such a strange thing, too. Whereas many people go to film and television to watch people they’d like to have a beer with, the characters I listed above are the sort of people who you wouldn’t want to meet in person. They’re shallow, they’re obnoxious, they’re obsessed with outward signs of class. They’re also hilarious because of it, like a mirror of the worst aspirations in the upper middle-class.
With Alan Partridge (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa in the UK), actor and co-creator Steve Coogan revisits the character that made his career. Alan’s still an insufferable wanker, but he’s still endlessly watchable.
[For the next few weeks, we’ll be covering the 2013 New York Film Festival, now in its 51st year. Flixist will provide you with reviews, video, news, and features on some of the best films on the festival circuit. To check out all of our coverage of NYFF51, click here.]
Alan Partridge (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa)
Director: Declan Lowney
Release Date: August 7th, 2013 (UK)
When characters are taken from the small screen to the big screen, one of the challenges is finding the right kind of story to contain such a small personality. Most television characters, especially in sitcoms, are defined by a limited shtick, and it’s important to find a movie that plays to that limited shtick by building a larger cinematic framework for the character without it feeling like a rehash of old gags. (Maybe the best of example of this is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.)
Alan Partridge winds up finding the right vessel for Alan Partridge by doing something that feels like an episode of a show blown up for the big screen. The radio station that Alan has worked for over the last couple years — he used to be a television presenter, but his career took a slide — has been bought by a hip young conglomerate that’s phasing out old talent for new kids. Pat, one of Alan’s long-time colleagues played by the always-reliable Colm Meaney, gets sacked and decides to do the only rational thing: he walks into the radio station with a shotgun and takes it hostage. Hilarity ensues.
I imagine that when Alan Partridge gets released in the United States, there’ll be a couple of think pieces about gun violence and hostage situations as a source of comedy, with the writers of said think pieces forgetting just how funny Dog Day Afternoon was in spots and that black comedy can be hysterical. Coogan and his co-writers didn’t forget, and the resulting film is a mix of slapstick and well-observed social awkwardness. Pat makes a gun-rest with duct tape around another DJ’s head, a bunch of crass personalities are stuck together in a room, and Alan sees the hostage situation as a possible way to up his slumping profile as a media celebrity. There’s also mangina.
Alan Partridge is a gag-a-minute, rapid-fire sort of comedy, and the laughs come in different ways, so even though I’ve listed a few gags, there are plenty more. There’s the giggle from the line that describes Feetwood Mac as “soft rock cocaine enthusiasts” — funny cuz it’s true — and there’s a cringeworthy moment that involves Alan’s backwards idea of gender roles. Several, actually. He’s not what you’d call progressive about those sorts of things. Alpha Papa is a movie full of quotable lines as well, so many quotable lines that a second or third watch is necessary to catch them all. Since I’ve never been to England and I’m not much of an anglophile, I know I’m missing at least a third of the jokes that are UK-centric.
Maybe the most surprising thing about Alan Partridge is that Coogan doesn’t seem sick of the character. Alan Partridge made his first appearance more than 20 years ago on BBC Radio, and in Alpha Papa, it seems as if everyone invested in seeing where this goofy twit winds up. It’s a game of comic limbo, maybe: how low can Partridge go? Coogan’s gone on to have a successful career outside of Partridge, much of it thanks to his work with Michael Winterbottom, so it’d be easy to resent his attachment to a single part of his career. I can’t say he necessarily embraces Alan Partridge, but he doesn’t seem to be pushing it away, and that’s refreshing in a way that Ricky Gervais’ return to David Brent isn’t.
Alan Partridge as a character has always been a cult thing stateside — I didn’t even get into Partridge stuff until seeing 24 Hour Party People in college and wanting to know more about Coogan — and I think Alpha Papa will similarly play to a niche audience of people who love those UK nitwits. Watching it can be a bit exhausting since there are so many jokes and, let’s face it, about an hour with Partridge is a strong enough dose for most people, and yet it’s worthwhile. I don’t think Alan Partridge will win that many new fans to the character, but it’ll make the fans happy, which is what Alan would want if he were real.
[Alan Partridge will screen at Alice Tully Hall on October 7th. For tickets and more information, click here.]