British TV comic Steve Coogan makes a likable transition to the bigscreen in "The Parole Officer," a small-scale and eventually enjoyable character comedy in which an inept rehabilitation official stages a bank heist to clear his name of a frame-up. Pic has the potential for good midscale business on home turf.

British TV comic Steve Coogan makes a likable transition to the bigscreen in “The Parole Officer,” a small-scale and eventually enjoyable character comedy in which an inept rehabilitation official stages a bank heist to clear his name of a frame-up. Though pic takes a while to find its feet and establish a rhythm, it has the potential for good midscale business on home turf; offshore, where Coogan’s name is not known, film will need careful marketing to find an audience.

Coogan is best known in Blighty for his small-screen alter ego, Alan Partridge, a pompous, opinionated chatshow host who constantly puts down his guests but is also prone to making himself look equally stupid. Coogan’s bigscreen parole officer, though several notches less arrogant, is largely cast in the same mold and relies on the actor’s particular brand of slightly goofy comedy, rather like a distant cousin of Mr. Bean. Auds unfamiliar with his TV persona may take a while to tune into his low-key style and stumbling, double-take delivery.

Coogan plays Simon Garden, a klutzy parole officers from Blackpool, northwest England, who has rehabilitated only three criminals in his entire career. Transferred to nearby Manchester, he’s almost immediately embroiled in trouble, witnessing a cop, Burton (Stephen Dillane), strangling the accountant of a nightclub owner (Clive Kneller) who’s been running a cocaine scam with Burton.

Burton realizes Garden witnessed the murder and frames him for it. But while on the run, Garden remembers the killing was caught on a CCTV monitor and sets out to retrieve the tape, now deposited in a high-tech bank vault by the nightclub owner. To help him break in, he rounds up the three former criminals he once successfully rehabilitated: a Indian serial bigamist (Om Puri), a computer hacker (Ben Miller) and a former boxer-cum-fishmonger (Steven Waddington). Hardly the ideal team, they’re subsequently joined by Kirsty (Emma Williams), a young druggie joyrider who has a score to settle with Burton.

It’s around this point that the movie starts to click into gear as the character comedy warms up during scenes of the klutzy quintet rehearsing for the heist. Up to this point, the film’s rhythm has been somewhat stop-go, not helped by rather workaday direction by John Duigan and a habit of stopping the plot for elaborate comic set pieces — one on a roller coaster, another in a museum — which basically revolve around a single joke in TV sketch style.

Pic finally finds its feet soon after as the bank robbery swings into action — a third act that is cleverly paced, makes hay from character interplay and is given a real boost by Alex Heffes’ big-scale orchestral score (with nods to “The Magnificent Seven”) that plays against the basically small-scale action.

Final reels, which include a delightful cameo by Omar Sharif (billed only in the end crawl), have a celebratory charm that’s capped by a joyfully loony last sequence.

Though much of the film revolves round the persona of Coogan, who co-scripted with his regular TV collab, Henry Normal, overall it’s more of an ensemble piece than a one-man showcase — and better for it. Puri, Waddington and Miller blend well as the three left-footed crims, and Dillane, especially, is splendid as the smooth, smiling police villain.

Lena Headey is somewhat under-used as a cop who falls for Garden’s shy charm (and the script never makes a convincing case for her attraction), but she comes through stronger as the pic progresses. Jenny Agutter has a tiny role that’s almost a throwaway.

Tech credits are OK, with no special gloss.

The Parole Officer

U.K.

Production

A UIP (in U.K.)/Universal Focus (in U.S.) release of a DNA Films presentation, in association with Universal Pictures Intl. and the Film Council, of a Figment/Toledo Pictures production. Produced by Duncan Kenworthy, Andrew Macdonald, Callum McDougall. Directed by John Duigan. Screenplay, Steve Coogan, Henry Normal.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), John Daly; editor, David Freeman; music, Alex Heffes; production designer, Tom Brown; art director, Sue Booth; costume designer, Alex Caulfield; sound (Dolby Digital), John Midgely; stunt coordinator, Gareth Milne; additional camera, Ken Westbury, Graham Frake; assistant director, Sean Guest; casting, Michelle Guish. Reviewed at UIP screening room, London, July 2, 2001. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Simon Garden - Steve Coogan Emma - Lena Headey Detective-Inspector Burton - Stephen Dillane George - Om Puri Jeff - Steven Waddington Colin - Ben Miller Sarah - Jenny Agutter Kirsty - Emma Williams Victor Bonderenko - Omar Sharif
With: Justin Burrows, Clive Kneller, John Henshaw.
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