British television comedy can be either hit or miss here in the states—on the one hand, you’ve got the legions of Python fans, endlessly repeating their favorite lines from movies and the BBC TV show (full disclosure—I’m one of these.) On the other hand, you have the critical and commercial failures (at least in America) of Mr. Bean, The Inbetweeners, and now, Alan Partridge. What makes these English language films—reliant as all comedy not just on wit but physical humor and ribald jokes—succeed or fail?
Director: Declan Lowney
Producers: Kevin Loader, Henry Normal
Writers: Peter Baynham, Armando Iannucci, Steve Coogan, Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons
Cinematographer: Ben Smithard
Editor: Mark Everson
Cast: Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney, Karl Theobald, Nigel Lindsay, Felicity Montagu, Tim Key, Dustin Demri-Burns
US Theatrical Release: April 4, 2014
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
It could be something as simple as access, as Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a staple of American public television in the 1970s, whereas The Inbetweeners (which is risible) and Partridge are only accessible through distant cable or streaming outlets. Bean, though, is beloved by Americans (though the movies failed to make much impact), and I remain perhaps the only human alive who believes that Mr. Bean’s Holiday is—yes, I’ll say it—a masterpiece. It can’t be simply a matter of cultural understanding—though American audiences can be forgiven for failing to grasp Partridge’s Marillion jokes. Certainly, there are moments in Alan Partridge that will elude us, and not just because there are often moments where we can’t figure out what the hell they’re saying.
Simply put: Monty Python works in America; Alan Partridge does not. This is not to criticize Alan Partridge, the often funny new movie opening today at the Lagoon, but rather to wonder aloud what it is that makes a comedy work around the world versus here in America. After seeing Alan Partridge, and enjoying it, I’m still a bit baffled.
Local art house movie fans may know Steve Coogan through starring roles in the films Philomena (which he and wrote received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay), Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and The Trip, the latter of which made endless fun of his Alan Partridge persona. For those of you who loved The Trip (count me in that number), and who cannot access Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (the show that made the Partridge character a UK institution), Alan Partridge, the movie, will probably give you some necessary insight for the The Trip to Italy, the sequel to that culinary comedy coming to a Landmark theater later this year.
Alan Partridge, to put it bluntly, is an ass. But he is very special sort of English ass, a sort-of combination of our own Ron Burgundy cloned with the genes of what appears to be a pompous, slightly intelligent British talk show host that we don’t quite have here (maybe Charlie Rose?). Having seen a few episodes of Knowing Me, Knowing You, I have to say that I can see why it fails here in America—unlike the Python’s ability to take their jokes out of their own country and into the outer space of their own minds, and sanity in general, thus creating a common ground of lunacy that you either love or hate, Partridge is deeply rooted in very specific BBC talk shows. Imagine if the entirety of Monty Python were reduced to nothing more than the “Spectrum” sketch, and you’ll see what I mean. Coogan’s Partridge is fun to watch, his massive ego, his endless malapropisms and his inability to shut up and hammer a point past its inevitable conclusion—not just beating a horse to death but pulverizing it into a powder in front of a beleaguered and increasingly annoyed guest. His is also frequently funny, taking us into the realm of embarrassment until we succumb to laughter. However, that’s all there is to Alan Partridge, and his show, after a few episodes, became a one-joke grind. Cringing at someone’s endless failures is only so funny for so long.
Alan Partridge, the movie, is to be applauded for taking Partridge out of his usual environment. The film removes him from London to the lonely seaside town of Norwich, where he works at a local radio station, a departure from his salad days as host of a BBC television talk show (though never mentioned, the Partridge character was fired after accidentally killing a guest).
Alan, still full of himself and just smart enough to get into trouble, now plies his trade during the station’s morning show, asking listeners insipid, though often amusing, questions, such as wondering aloud what people’s favorite scent would be, you know, after the Chinese had chemically attacked England with a gas that destroyed everyone’s ability to smell things.
The film begins a bit slowly, ham-handedly introducing us to the various characters Partridge will engage with—all essentially subordinates against which Coogan can toss off his many insane one-liners and lengthy gags. Prominent amongst these is Pat Farrell, played by Colm Meany, who gives his fairly thankless role some depth. Pat is an “old school” DJ, playing classic songs and fumbling with the internet (“I Googled you on Yahoo” is a telling line) and who is made fun of—on the air—by a young DJ, who is hip and cool and yet looks to be about forty himself. Everyone else—from the bastard CEO of the corporation, to the drug addled older DJ, to the disrespectful kid, to the bumbling security guard who poops in his lunchbox—seems like a trope from a loony and short lived TV show. And one character—Lynn (Felicity Montagu)—is right out of Knowing Me Knowing You and doesn’t really make any sense. Apparently she was Partridge’s assistant at the BBC, and continues to this day despite his demotion to radio.
The plot hinges on a corporate entity taking over the radio station and rebranding it as a cool new station that will supposedly bring in tons of money for the company and attract young listeners. When it comes to cleaning house, clearly it will boil down to either Pat or Alan getting the sack (for some reason the other older DJ who rambles on about his drug use is not losing his job). Alan, who can’t see this train coming to save his life, later persuades management to keep him at the expense of Pat, who inexplicably trusts Alan as his only friend at the studio. So when Pat becomes unhinged and holds the station staff, and especially the corporate bastards, hostage, the police convince Alan to go back into the studio and be the go-between with Pat and the authorities.
And here is where Alan Partridge takes off—the movie suddenly becomes a swift-moving, often crisply directed, perfectly timed comedy that invokes, of all things, Dog Day Afternoon, among others. Partridge, forced into the center of this tense situation, becomes both unhinged and totally focused at the same time—a crazy collection of anxious tics, long bouts of mortifying soul-searching and confessional prattle, all of this wrapped in his usual egotistical ramblings. There are many brilliant moments—Partridge and a cop comparing their favorite sieges (and invoking a fictional Penguin Book of Sieges), Pat demanding the hostages make him a “jingle” in one hour (including a heroic moment where Partridge, grabbing an electric bass, amazes the assembled with the line “I’m going to lay down a rhythm track”, before recording what might the greatest jingle ever made), Partridge losing his pants and tucking his privates into his buttocks, and a magnificent joke at the expense of The Hurt Locker. Add to this Partridge’s inability to diffuse this situation, to the point where he can’t even end this siege when Pat hands him the gun while looking for a Willie Nelson album.
Because Alan Partridge isn’t Monty Python, it cannot raise the stakes on this plot to the point of unbridled insanity—we have to have the requisite denouement, where lessons are learned, Partridge gets the girl, Pat has to have his moment lamenting his choices and his lost love (which is painfully overdone). Credit again to the Brits—were this an American production, undoubtedly Partridge would be riding into the sunset with a woman, at most, in her young thirties and model-ready, whereas here his lady love is his age, and shows it by also bringing along two morose, texting teenage sons. This rather lazy closing serves to undermine what had, at that point, been a riotous and often unexpected comedy, a sharp critique of corporate media, and, at its base, a damn fine dose of entertainment.
Alan Partridge, which, if you believe Box Office Mojo, has in America literally grossed less than my wife and I make in a year (and she’s a schoolteacher), will no doubt make its exit from town in a matter of days. I’m not certain it is essential viewing on the big screen, save for the fact that it’s always more fun to watch comedies with big crowds, which you also probably won’t get at the Lagoon during any show, but the film is certain to fail here, just as it has elsewhere in the US. Coogan’s Partridge appeal is limited—trying to make the movie accessible to people who haven’t seen his BBC series, it alienates fans (Alan Partridge, the movie, was not a hit in England, either). Taken on its own, Alan Partridge is a mildly hilarious comedy for people who enjoy English humor and a nice diversion that doesn’t resonate very long after viewing.