Buffoonish Norfolk DJ Alan Partridge, one of Steve Coogan and the BBC’s finest comic creations, makes an effortless transition to the bigscreen in “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa,” a scissor-sharp comedy of ineptitude and failure. Crisply directed by Declan Lowney with a rigorous assist from Coogan’s latest Partridge writing partners (Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons and Armando Iannucci), this long-aborning feature provides an ace vehicle for Coogan and is arguably the funniest thing to come out of Norwich since, well, the 2012 TV special “Alan Partridge: Welcome to the Places of My Life.” B.O. figures are likely to generate big bravos in Blighty when the pic opens wide Aug. 7.
Prospects offshore look much trickier, considering the character has never had more than a niche cult following in the U.S., where Coogan is probably best known to mainstream viewers for his supporting role in “Tropic Thunder.” Arthouse audiences should be more aware of him from his collaborations with Michael Winterbottom, including “24 Hour Party People” and their most recent effort, “The Look of Love.”
But in Britain, Alan Partridge is a full-on phenomenon, a multiplatform fictional celebrity whose catchphrases, mangled metaphors and social ineptitude are the stuff of legend and good ratings. He first appeared as an inept sports reporter on BBC Radio 4 in 1991 before going on to host his own parody talkshow, “Knowing Me, Knowing You … With Alan Partridge.” Since that early ’90s highpoint, Partridge’s career, at least within the fictional universe around him, has been in precipitous decline. Things reached a nadir in 1997 when, having lost his national television gig and in the full throes of a midlife crisis, he was forced to fall back on a DJ gig at a local station in his hometown, Norwich, a moderately sized city famous for its many churches and pubs, the invention of the blood libel, and being a bit dull.
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The contempo-set “Alpha Papa” finds Partridge in better form, mellowed a bit now that he’s in his mid-50s, but still not so proud or well off that he doesn’t have to drive a car that’s effectively a moving billboard for a local Norfolk dealership. His latest berth is at North Norfolk Digital Radio, where he presents his “Mid-Morning Matters,” a blend of inane chat and easy listening co-presented with Sidekick Simon (Tim Key, whose character was introduced in a recent online-only series). But when the station comes under the ownership of conglomerate Gordale Media, fronted by the bullish Jason (Nigel Lindsay), Alan, rightly fearing that he could be laid off, talks the new executives into firing his sad-sack colleague Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) instead.
Already grieving the death of his wife, Pat goes postal and takes Jason and all the station’s employees hostage with a shotgun. For reasons not especially well explained, Alan is chosen to go back into the station as mediator between the police and Pat, who’s taken over the airwaves. Pat trusts Alan enough to allow him outside to talk to the cops and the media, and soon the DJ begins to enjoy his newly invigorated celebrity status and seeks to parlay it into career advancement, against the advice of his bafflingly loyal, long-suffering personal assistant, Lynn (Felicity Montagu, like many others a returning player from earlier Partridge entertainments).
While many other British TV laffers have tended to handle the transition to the bigscreen by making the comedy louder, loucher, and setting the events abroad (a la “Kevin & Perry Go Large” or “The Inbetweeners Movie”), the filmmakers here have largely opted to retain the kind of humor and domestic settings that made the earlier work successful. The film has the same verite vibe of the earlier TV shows, which were precursors of a style that Iannucci extended further with his series “The Thick of It” and “Veep,” as well as his feature “In the Loop.” Barring a bit of well-executed vulgarity that sees Partridge lose his trousers at one point, the jokes are mostly situational and verbal, and at their best hinge on Alan’s knack for saying offensive things while being entirely unaware that anyone might object. A classic example here is his way of announcing a track on the air: “You can keep Jesus; as far as I’m concerned, Neil Diamond will always be king of the Jews.”
The script serves up such one-liners with impressive regularity, and helmer Lowney (“Father Ted”) knows when to stand back and let the actors do their thing, while Mark Everson’s smooth editing enhances the exquisite comic timing on display. Coogan, who’s lived inside this character’s skin for 22 years or so, is in top form here, bringing from his recent dramatic work a touch of vulnerability beneath the bluster that adds some necessary emotional heft. Meaney makes an impressive foil and straight man.
Although most of the interiors were shot in a London sound studio, exterior shots take good advantage of locations in and around Norfolk, exploiting the layout of Norwich’s city center for a particularly good gag about the proximity of the nearest police station while the climactic “chase” sequence unspools at the pace of a processional parade. The final showdown scene on Cromer Pier, on Norfolk’s north coast, captures the area’s sad, seaside seediness in all its glory.