Alan Partridge, Anna Maxwell Martin, based on a radio show, Best of 2013, cinema, Colm Meaney, comedy, Darren Boyd, Declan Lowney, Felicity Montagu, film reviews, films, forensic trousers, hostage situation, Karl Theobald, Monica Dolan, Movies, Nigel Lindsay, Peter Baynham, radio DJs, radio stations, Simon Greenall, Steve Coogan, Tim Key
At one point in Declan Lowney’s outrageously funny Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013), blowhard, egomaniacal radio DJ Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) ends up locking himself out of the very hostage situation that he’s been sent in to mediate. Determined to make it back inside the studio, Alan attempts to climb in through a nearby window which, of course, doesn’t go quite as planned: the idiot ends up hanging upside-down, sans pants and underwear (but with shirt surprisingly intact). After winnowing his way free, Alan is suddenly confronted by a heavily armed member of the SWAT team, who demands that he raise his hands. The look on Coogan’s face as he dejectedly, but resolutely, raises his hands is proof positive that the British actor is one of the finest comedians in the business, quite possibly this generation’s Peter Sellers.
Like Sellers, Coogan is a gifted chameleon, a mimic that can effortlessly slip into any character and provide it with its own individual tics and quirks, pulling mannerisms out of a black bag in the same way that Lon Chaney might have removed makeup accessories. Sellers had a particular way with facial gestures…an artfully raised eyebrow here, a sly smile there…that is readily apparent with Coogan: were he reduced simply to gestures, it’s quite possible that Coogan would remain just as effective and funny. Also like Sellers, Coogan can vacilate between drama and comedy: Coogan’s recent turn in the Oscar-nominated Philomena (2013) proved that quite handily. In the right vehicle, he’s pretty much unstoppable: Alan Partridge is just such a vehicle and, quite possibly, the funniest film I saw in the past eight months.
I will admit to coming into the film pretty blind: I knew nothing about the actual character of Alan Partridge, although I suspected that Alpha Papa wasn’t his first spin around the block. Turns out that Coogan created Partridge for a radio show, which then spawned TV appearances and the film we see before us. Suffice to say that prior knowledge of the character is not necessary to appreciate the current big-screen adaptation, although I’m sure it enriches the experience.
We’re introduced to our obnoxious, yet strangely loveable, protagonist through his job at a small Norfolk radio station. Alan Partridge is a DJ and the kind of fellow for whom the term “insufferable” was coined: he’s a completely self-absorbed ass, the kind of person who interrupts singing along with his favorite song on the radio to correct another driver. He’s vain, a habitual liar (Alan says that he’s researching “ospreys” on the internet but the reflection in his eyeglasses suggests otherwise) and egotistical asshole who thinks absolutely nothing about throwing someone else under the proverbial bus, be they his personal assistant, Lynn (Felicity Montagu) or his put-upon fellow DJ, Pat (Colm Meaney).
Turns out that Pat is feeling pretty marginalized, as of late, and getting unceremoniously sacked by the new management has led him to take rather drastic action: arming himself with a shotgun, Pat takes the station’s crew hostage, including the new manager, Jason (Nigel Lindsay) and Alan’s beleaguered on-air “sidekick, Simon (Tim Key). He doesn’t get Alan, however, because the “veteran on-air personality” ran for the hills at the first sign of trouble, “comandeering” a surprised motorist’s car in order to drive to the next-door police station. Fate’s not done with Alan just yet, however, as it turns out that Pat will only deal with one person in the entire world: his good “buddy” Alan. Oblivious to the fact that Alan actually sold him up the river to begin with, Pat feels that only another member of the old school will truly see his perspective on the situation. The police agree and send our man Alan back into the fray, armed with a bullet-proof jacket, one whopper of a lie and a complete and total allergy to common sense. It’s up to Alan to defuse the situation, save the lives of the hostages and deliver Pat to the authorities. In other words: they’re all doomed.
One of the most important aspects of a comedy is the film’s actual ability to produce genuine laughs. Over the years, I’ve become more and more used to watching comedies that function more as “clever” than genuinely “funny.” There’s a big difference: clever films might be witty, thought-provoking and apt to produce the odd chuckle here or there but they are not, by and large, the factory whereby big laughs are produced. An actually funny film, however, will produce uncontrollable bursts of laughter: this is an almost primal, ferocious experience. Laughing so hard that you ache is a rare but altogether intense feeling. If there is a short-list for the the films that have made me laugh the hardest over the years, Alan Partridge would certainly deserve a prime spot.
Quite simply, Alpha Papa is an outrageously funny film. The film is a near non-stop barrage of everything from razor-sharp dialogue and one-liners to utterly absurd situational comedy (a dream sequence that involves Coogan as SWAT team members Jason Bourne, Jason Statham and Jason of the Argonauts is a complete classic), physical comedy and blink-and-you-miss-’em visual gags. There’s a throwaway bit, towards the end, where Alan shoots a BB gun and ends up hitting a poster of JFK dead between the eyes: “Not again!” he wails, racing away, and I couldn’t help but feel that Mel Brooks couldn’t do it any better. From “forensic trousers” to “agenda benders” and the “hands-free head holster” (just what any busy radio DJ/hostage-taker needs for multi-tasking), Alpha Papa is a constantly inventive cornucopia of comedy, a “scattergun” approach to the form that involves an astoundingly high ratio of hits to misses. Truth be told, I’m hard-pressed to recall much of the humor that didn’t work for me, although this probably has at least something to do with my particular sensibilities. I know that it definitely has a lot to do with star/creator Coogan.
Coogan is a complete marvel as Alan, a character that manages to not only say and do the worst possible thing in any given situation but manages to do so with such a complete zeal that his dedication to everything (not least of all, himself) is never in doubt. Alan may be a liar, a cheat and an all-around horrible person but, through some miracle, Coogan manages to make him not only tolerable but likeable. You may never trust Alan with your life or your reputation but there’s just something about him that makes you forgive his often despicable acts, time and time again. It’s a similar enigma as with The Office’s Michael Scott but magnified ten fold: Alan Partridge will never have Michael’s misguided altruism because he’s too self-absorbed to even notice other humans. Despite this complete narcissism (at one point, Alan complains that everyone views him as some sort of “Christ 2.0” and you get the idea that he genuinely believes this), Alan still has the ability to step up when necessary and do the right thing, even if it doesn’t always benefit him.
While Coogan is fantastic as Alan (possibly a career-best performance), he’s got a more than capable ensemble backing him up. Veteran actor Colm Meaney has always been a great performer but his turn as Pat Farrell certainly belongs in his personal Hall of Fame. By turns proud, wounded and pissed off, Pat is a complex character, as far from a plot device or a MacGuffin as it gets. There is some genuine poignancy to the scene where Pat and Alan discuss their boyhood dreams and a rousing bit of wish-fulfillment when the pair hit the road in the “broadcasting bus” to bring the truth to the common man. This may be Alan’s show but Pat is a vital component and Meaney’s performance is a great counter-balance to Coogan’s manic energy.
Great performances abound, however: Nigel Lindsay brings the proper amount of middle-management sleaze to his portrayal of station head Jason, Monica Dolan is hilariously “clingy” as Alan’s on-again/off-again fling Angela and Anna Maxwell Martin is so starched that she practically creaks as Janet Whitehead, head of the SWAT task-force. Special mention must go to Felicity Montagu as Alan’s personal assistant, however. Lynn is a remarkable character, by turns slavishly devoted to Alan’s personal and career-wellbeing, at other times as easily distracted by the trappings of “fame” as a bird is to shiny objects. Montagu is a riot and nearly steals all of her scenes, no small feat when working so closely with Coogan.
I could go on and on about Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa but the bottom-line is pretty simple: the film is an absolute and complete gem. It’s uproariously funny, full of heart, deeply incisive, stuffed to bursting with interesting characters and anchored by a phenomenal lead performance via the indomitable Steve Coogan. While there is no such thing as a universal comedy, I’m hard-pressed to think that anyone couldn’t find something to laugh at in Alpha Papa. It may be a little early to declare a film from 2013 as a “classic” but I’m going to go out on a limb here: Alpha Papa is just about as classic as it gets.