Back in 1994, a movie called “Airheads,” about a trio of bumbling stooges (played by Brendan Fraser, Adam Sandler and a goateed Steve Buscemi) who take over a radio station in order for their demo to get played over the airwaves, was released to, more or less, a critical and commercial shrug. In the years since, however, the film, richly stockpiled with ‘90s nostalgia (including an appearance by White Zombie and a vocal cameo by Mike Judge as Beavis & Butthead), has earned a loyal cult following. It’s hard not to imagine the same fate for “Alan Partridge” (entitled “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa” in its native U.K.), at least in the United States. It’s a movie with a strikingly similar premise but based on a beloved British radio and television character (played, with relish, by Steve Coogan), who is all but unknown here. That stateside obscurity could change after “Alan Partridge,” but we kind of doubt it.
Before the New York Film Festival screening of the film, we only had a cursory knowledge of the Alan Partridge character. Unlike “The Office” or Monty Python, the character, who Coogan has been performing as, on and off, for more than 20 years, has yet to make much of a cultural impact domestically. Fifteen seconds into the movie, however, and it’s abundantly clear who this character is: he’s a vain, silly, womanizing, and probably deeply sad, buffoon. In the movie’s opening moments, we get to watch him on his radio show, delivering creaky wordplay and outdated banter, before watching him, more tellingly, driving in his car, singing along to Roachford’s ‘80s hit “Cuddly Toy.” Roachford, for those playing at home, were a phenomenally popular British band whose impact in America was minimal.
The little radio station where Partridge works (in the dingy city of Norwich) has recently been gobbled up by a larger telecommunications conglomerate, something that initially rubs him the wrong way but becomes way more palpable when his smarmy survival instincts kick in. It seems that the company is on the verge of either firing Partridge or his fellow disc jockey Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) and, Partridge, always looking out for number one, immediately throws his friend Pat under the bus. The company fires Pat, who in turn retaliates by taking much of the radio station hostage. Partridge makes it out of the radio station unscathed, but is recruited by the police as a go-between and sent back into the building in an attempt to diffuse the situation.
As far as plot goes, that’s pretty much all “Alan Partridge” has going on. The central question—about whether or not Alan will make amends for selling out his friend and his radio station and do the right thing for both—is just window dressing for a bunch of silly but effective gags, like the one where Partridge has to shimmy out of a bathroom window and gets his pants caught, leaving him to moon a paparazzi photographer when he finally makes it outside. The character of Alan Partridge is even more cartoonish than Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, but they work on a similar level of self-serving vapidity. The problem is that, unlike Brent, Partridge is surrounded by characters who are just as cartoonish and uninvolving as he is (many of whom, it seems, made appearances in earlier Partridge vehicles). Meaney might as well be pointing his shotgun at cardboard cutouts.
Coogan is a gifted comic performer, for sure, but oftentimes this actively acts against the movie, since it feels like there aren’t individually crafted scenes, or even much in the way of forward narrative momentum. Instead, there are individual moments, loosely draped atop long stretches of Coogan just riffing, making funny faces, and acting like a ham. The fact that the screenplay has five credited screenwriters, including Coogan and “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci, is downright shocking. All of those people working together came up with… this?
Which isn’t to say that “Alan Partridge” is bad, necessarily. You will laugh, for sure, heartily and consistently, even if it’s hard to care about anything that’s actually going on. And director Declan Lowney, a veteran of British TV and film, keeps things moving at a clipped pace even though the actual staging and technical formality of the project is so old-fashioned that you can almost see a fine layer of dust covering each scene. It should also be noted that, if you have a connection to the character, and have been watching him (or listening to him) for the past two decades, then the movie might resonate on a more profound level. Or any level, really. But for those (like us) who were simultaneously being introduced to the character and being asked to engage emotionally with him, then it makes things all the harder.
All that being said, it is easy to see an “Airheads”-like following springing up around “Alan Partridge.” It’s easy to almost want to sing along to the collection of poppy old songs that litter the soundtrack (turning John Farnham’s “You’re the Voice” into a triumphant anthem of anti-establishment sentiment is admittedly something close to genius) and Coogan speaks in such a quick, rat-a-tat way that we kind of want to see the movie again just to make sure we can make out all the jokes (as hoary as some of them might be). After the screening, Coogan seemed deeply concerned about doing the character justice, but admitted that making the movie was a certain kind of hell. The pleasure and the pain are all up there on the screen; we just wish it was less painful to watch. [C]