Steve Coogan’s fictional disc jockey/chat-show host/all-purpose inept broadcaster, Alan Partridge, has by now enjoyed a longer career than many non-fictional celebrities in his field. Coogan has played Partridge in a variety of incarnations, only now getting around to a feature-film version after more than two decades of radio and TV appearances. The unifying characteristic of Partridge’s work across media is a thin veneer of professionalism covering a general lack of substance or even ability.
Alan Partridge, the character’s very funny first feature, at least finds him at an appropriate level, eking out a modest but comfortable life as a DJ in Norwich, England. His day-to-day consists of asking his listeners inane call-in questions, containing his disdain for on-air sidekick, Simon (Tim Key), and assigning menial tasks to his assistant, Lynn (Felicity Montagu). When a multinational conglomerate acquires his station and attempts to rebrand it, Partridge fears not cultural homogenization but losing his cushy gig. But office politics take a dark turn when the first casualty of the rebranding, fellow DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), returns to the station seeking vengeance. The police turn to Partridge for a spot of hostage negotiation, a job he embraces when he realizes he can be the “face of this siege.”
In a broad sense, Alan Partridge recalls the half-forgotten Comedy Central staple Airheads—released two decades ago, when concerns about the corporatization of radio were more timely. Yet to the degree that the new film thrives for satire, such an outdated issue suits its semi-absurdist character study: How fitting that Partridge, who wants so desperately to stay ahead of or at least on the curve, would be a little late catching up to some 20th-century anxieties. The movie doesn’t set out to redeem Coogan’s vacuous creation; instead, it shows how a vain and slightly dim man goes crazed with the slightest hint of power or greater celebrity. To this end, the defining shot of the film comes when the camera zooms in and holds on Partridge’s vacant stare as he flips through channels, searching for footage of himself at the siege.
Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay with a crew of comic pros including In The Loop’s Armando Iannucci, maintains center stage, playing off of Meaney’s earnest, maudlin bluster. And, though the focus stays tight, the movie’s comic language consists largely of tangents great and small. Most of these are verbal, and tossed off with great skill by Coogan. But some are visual, like a handful of sharp cutaway gags that interrupt the movie’s faux-polished lighting and walk-and-talk traveling shots. Director Declan Lowney does an admirable job making a confined film look cinematic without overblowing it into action-comedy mode. Partridge, after all, is not really a man of action. He’s a man of sneaking into the spotlight and staying there (or at least on the periphery) as long as possible. If he can control his worst instincts, it counts as a minor triumph.