Opens Fri., April 18 at Varsity. Rated R. 90 minutes.
Between the showbiz parodies of SCTV and the anchorman toolishness of Ron Burgundy, there is a missing link of media satire—missing for Americans who don’t frequent British TV, that is. This step on the evolutionary scale goes by the name Alan Partridge, a broadcast personality with a remarkably unctuous, maladroit style. As embodied in Steve Coogan’s reptilian performance, Alan combines an unshakable and unwarranted vanity with a staggering level of self-interest. He’s a man who’d gladly throw elbows in the direction of women and children who happened to stray into his path to the lifeboats.
Hatched over 20 years ago as a radio character, Alan’s had his shot as a national TV host (which, among other mortifications, resulted in his killing a talk-show guest). At the present stage of his well-traveled career, he’s a DJ at a small-time radio station in Norwich. The station is about to be swallowed by a heartless media conglomerate, and Alan—true to form—does not hesitate to toss a co-worker under the bus in order to keep his own job. When the fired colleague (Colm Meaney) responds by taking the staff hostage, Alan is recruited to act as the crisis mediator—enough of a disastrous idea to offer sturdy comic possibilities.
Outside his periodic revisiting of the Partridge world, Coogan has developed range. His role in The Trip showed off his aptitude for portraying the prickly complexity of a smart, needy soul (a fellow named “Steve Coogan,” bravely enough). The recent Philomena proved Coogan could be in a conventional story without sacrificing his acid touch. But Alan Partridge should keep working for years to come, so tuned-in is Coogan to the man’s toxic egotism.
Undoubtedly Alan Partridge’s references will elude American viewers unacquainted with Alan’s past (especially the importance of a long-suffering assistant, played by Lynn Benfield). But in the Will Ferrell/Steve Carell era, the character of the blissfully unselfconscious dunce is familiar enough to bridge any cultural gaps; the result runs hot and cold, but thankfully without a hint of sentimentality. Coogan scripted with longtime Partridge collaborators, including Armando Iannucci (In the Loop and TV’s Veep); another veteran of UK television, Declan Lowney, directs. Wisely, they’ve made this storyline tight and contained, but it still allows Alan to show his true colors by exploiting a grave situation for his own benefit. They’ve also invented a villain (the corporate suits, not the deranged DJ) unappealing enough to make us root for Alan. That’s a dirty trick, but fear not: He retains the ability to repel even his biggest fans.