Any Yanks concerned that the Brits outclass us may find relief in Alan Partridge, an import comedy that at first seems to stand as evidence of some over-there comic superiority. Compared to our broad Ron Burgundys, Steve Coogan’s local broadcast ass Alan Partridge stands as sharp, incisive parody, a desperate, thin-skinned, self-involved, utterly detestable radio host who specializes in forgettable on-air palaver — and who, once the microphone is off, leaves a trail of smarm after him like a slug’s slick. The character’s well-pitched awfulness is exemplified in this killer joke from the BBC’s I’m Alan Partridge: Every story he tells in his low-selling memoir ends with, “Needless to say, I had the last laugh.”
A miserable medium between Will Ferrell’s Burgundy and Ricky Gervais’s David Brent, Partridge has starred in three TV series that alternate between buffoonery and cringe comedy. A solution of the same ingredients powers the first two-thirds of his film debut, an often funny workplace hostage comedy that doesn’t demand prior knowledge of the character. The oily, lizard-brained stupidity embodied by Coogan tells you everything you need to know except, perhaps, that schlumping, browbeaten Lynn (Felicity Montagu) is Partridge’s assistant rather than his wife; a critic I spoke to after the press screening had been shocked at the movie’s cavalier treatment of what he presumed was Partridge’s adultery — “They’re really open-minded over there,” he marveled.
The story is a familiar one of corporate takeovers and the sacking of longtime employees, but with a welcome, biting surprise, all filmed with the carpet-store flatness that is Coogan’s element: In surroundings this drab, this preening, wheedling Partridge almost seems charismatic. It’s a relief to be spared the distracting laugh track of the TV series; the awkward moments are now stretched out, and in them you have the chance to sort out for yourself what’s funny. I found quite a bit.
Partridge, now pushing 60, and fellow DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) face the usual career and existential crises when buzzword-spouting corporate suits buy Radio Norwich, the small-town home of sleepy-eyed shows like Partridge’s Mid-Morning Matters, which is all chitchat and Fleetwood Mac. Partridge, always a bit of a snake, learns that the new bosses plan to eliminate one of their old-dude presenters and soon is scrawling “SACK PAT” in the conference room. Pat does get sacked, Partridge gets to continue nattering on in the post-drive-time slot, and then everything goes wrong — and right — when an armed Pat returns to the station during an office party and holds everyone hostage.
Not realizing Partridge has betrayed him, Pat takes to the airwaves, doing the kind of boring, comfort-food radio the new owners don’t care for — they prefer louder boring, comfort-food radio. Pat enlists Partridge as co-host, and Coogan (who co-wrote the film) is hysterical in the moments when the character is torn between the possibility of heroics, his disgust with the new owners, and his desire to do the kind of shit radio he feels born to. He knows that broadcasting his own stint as a hostage is certain to be a ratings bonanza. The best new joke here is that the old guard fighting for their jobs and the new guard replacing them with central-office twaddle are both equally wretched. Partridge and Pat’s local programming is every bit as canned and meaningless as the corporate variety. But the filmmakers seem to forget this in the late running, when the movie slips up and makes the same mistake as Anchorman and its derivatives: asking us to believe its grotesques deserve access to the public airwaves. Partridge and Pat get cheered on by the people of Norwich, becoming heroes of a sort not just for fighting the power, but for being the power’s own wretched local iteration. Sadly, once there’s a feature-film budget at risk, the Brits get as sentimental about their comic heroes as ours do.