Reviewed: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
While digging through my old writing, burning what needs to be destroyed, I happened upon this review I wrote way back when (but not that long ago). I was elated to find this piece, because not only do I love this movie with a passion, but my girlfriend would be offended by if she discovered (don’t read this, Cayla), not nearly enough people are aware of it. So, in an effort to spread awareness of great cinema, I present to you now, my entirely subjective and not-scholarly-in-the-least review of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.
“You probably thought I was gay when I gave you that cuddle. Don’t worry, I’m not.”
The first time I watched this film, I needed to turn on the subtitles. Not because the characters were speaking a different language; it was made in England. I needed subtitles because they are so very English it’s crazy. Think Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels if the dialogue was delivered at twice the speed. Released in 2013, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is the first big screen adaptation of popular British television/radio personality (and fictional character) Alan Partridge, portrayed by Steve Coogan, in peak comedic form. Partridge, having fallen out of the public eye on television, has begun working as a DJ (or Djock, as he puts it) at a small, almost mom-and-pop radio station in the English countryside, content with his limited but loyal fanbase and, playlist containing great music like Sting, Neil Diamond and “soft-rock cocaine enthusiasts” Fleetwood Mac.
The film is electrically populated by friends and enemies also working at the station with Partridge; a colorful, original and bitingly funny cast of supporting characters who add to the infectious charm of the movie as a whole. By way of example, always at his right hand is Sidekick Simon, excited for the job but slightly inexperienced. Their barbed, overlapping dialogue at the beginning of the film is what sets the tone for what is to come, and encourages audiences to turn a sharp ear to the screen, because the jokes are rapid-fire and unrelenting. The other DJs employed at the station are slightly exaggerated, yet completely recognizable people, who exemplify stereotypes in such a subversive way so as never to fall into the tropes they are poking fun at; i.e., the middle-aged man who always has a story queued up about his drug-addled youth, or the loud, hip, cocky morning-show host who has no time (or respect) for the older members of the staff.
Speaking of the older members of the staff, we are brought to arguably the most active character of the film; Pat Farrell, played by sci-fi fan favorite Colm Meany. Slightly older than Alan, but far more outdated in his archaic presentation style on his radio show (which is a “hearty casserole of tunes, cheer and chinwag”), Pat’s job falls into jeopardy when the formally local radio station is bought by a media conglomerate looking to revamp the format and appeal to a different demographic. He is a sweet, well-liked guy, but thanks to Alan, Pat ends up fired from the station, not knowing Alan is responsible (situational irony abounds).
The plot is truly set in motion when Pat returns to the radio station that night with a shotgun and takes the staff and new owners hostage at their own launch party, leading to a siege that forms the main conflict of the film. The plot flows organically as the characters move through the events, never feeling contrived for the sake of comedy, but rather adapting to fit the actions of the characters as they deal with the situation.
The film itself is implausibly well-written, every scene crackling with whip-fast, painfully incisive dialogue that hardly gives you time to breathe in between each joke or funny situation. And that is just what is spoken directly in front of the screen. Following repeat viewings, I started to hear small, quiet lines delivered by characters off-camera that add comedic layers to the already overflowing, but never crowded, script.
The main two characters, Alan and Pat, have little trouble holding the audience’s attention on the screen, whether they are fighting over a gun or musing on how getting old surprised them. Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with his work, Steve Coogan has unmatched comedic timing and has crafted such an ingenious creation in Alan Partridge that it would make any other writer green with jealousy. So carefully written, Alan is an insufferable, selfish jerk, but at the same time, he is eminently likable. That is a tricky tightrope to walk, leaving you thinking that you don’t want him to get killed, maybe just smacked around a little.
Through Pat, Colm Meany provides the most balanced performance of the film. Scary, intimidating, and unstable when he needs to be, Pat is also entirely sympathetic and we are conflicted as to whether or not we’re on his side. I mean sure he’s got a gun, but he’s a good guy deep down. The director of the film, Declan Lowney, lets the characters take control of the film and allows us to enjoy the back and forth, before surprising the audience with some well-crafted set-ups that spring a new motivation on the characters and recharge the momentum of the film, so it never runs out of steam or becomes tedious.
I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to call Steve Coogan one of the most versatile actors working today. A master at comedy and satire, Coogan is also a gifted dramatic actor. He plays a fictionalized and almost Shakespearian, tragic version of himself in The Trip, and proves he can hold his own with legend of screen and stage Judi Dench in Philomena, a touching, powerful film released the same year, also written by Coogan.
With the dramatic heft of a highbrow, Oscar-contending film, as well as the self-confidence and effortless brilliance of the best of sketch comedy, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa succeeds on numerous levels, thanks largely to the performances of a game cast, as well as the lead character of Partridge himself. Even though they are being held at gunpoint, none of the characters cease to attempt to remain the cleverest person in the room, and just watching them attempt to one-up each other in the face of mortal danger is worth 90 minutes of your life you’ll be glad you donated.