It’s unfair to compare feature-film adaptations of popular television shows to the small-screen smashes that inspired them. It’s also impossible not to. Television shows and movies are inherently different, but that has seldom stopped creators from transforming television shows into movies and movies into television shows. This has resulted in a plague of Frankenstein’s-monsters that aren’t quite television or cinema, they’re a strange, unsatisfying demon-union of the two. This hybrid subsection of the entertainment universe has yielded classics like The Naked Gun, but more often films like Sex And The City 2, which seemed purposely designed to destroy any lingering goodwill anyone might feel toward the show or any of its characters.
Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge, which was released last year in England to rave reviews and healthy box-office returns, is a special case, in that the character has already been the subject of two radio series, three television shows, a number of specials, and many live appearances. As if that weren’t enough, Alan Partridge has also appeared in a webseries, and in 2011, the empire expanded to books with his faux-autobiography, I, Partridge.
So a Partridge movie is less a matter of converting a television show into a movie than extending a venerable, highly adaptable character to the only medium he hasn’t conquered yet. That alone would seem to be enough to justify an Alan Partridge movie. For Coogan and co-creator Armando Iannucci, film isn’t just a new medium—it’s more or less the last medium, unless they’re interested in reinventing the character for puppet theater.
Like so many film adaptations of hit shows, Alan Partridge owes its existence to kismet more than inspiration. It’s the sort of project that gets made because there was time in everyone’s schedules and a workable script, not because the world was crying out for an Alan Partridge movie at this particular moment. Why make a Partridge movie now? Because they could, and while the script isn’t perfect, it’s damn good, especially considering the circumstances.
Alan Partridge is an impressively contained project, the cinematic equivalent of a TV-show bottle episode, confining the action to a single setting as a way of both exploring character and setting, and keeping costs down. Here, that one central location is a radio station where Partridge has washed up following a series of high-profile humiliations. Partridge is seemingly content to spit mindless patter on the airwaves alongside his sidekick, until he discovers that the radio station has been taken over by an evil corporation intent on destroying what little soul the station still possesses.
As a happily superficial man enamored of big business and concerned primarily with his own comfort and success, Partridge is fine with the changes the new owners propose, until he learns they’re intent on cutting one of two veteran DJs: either himself or soulful, melancholy Irishman Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney). In a heartbeat, Partridge turns on his old friend and a planned management pitch to keep Pat on into an even more spirited pitch that they should fire Pat immediately. So there’s an element of karma at play when Pat snaps and takes the entire radio station hostage with a shotgun. With lives on the line, the titular sniveling narcissist is pushed into an uncomfortable new role as an action hero, as he becomes the official go-between for Pat and the police.
At its best, Alan Partridge positively recalls Dog Day Afternoon, The King Of Comedy, and other trenchant satires about the mind-warping effects of fame and media attention on the already unhinged and pathologically narcissistic. At worst, it suggests a 21st-century reboot of the justifiably forgotten 1994 comedy Airheads, which took a similar premise in a much less satirical direction.
Action movies require a certain level of heroism for their leads, but it seems like a violation of Partridge’s fundamental character for him to behave at all admirably, let alone heroically. He’s a bastard, but even a bastard can have his good days. There’s an intriguing tension in the way the film juggles the antithetical demands of action movies and droll social satires, and a appealing perversity to the way it places the ultimate narcissist in a context that demands heroism.
By this point, Coogan has played Alan Partridge for so long, it’s almost like a second skin. He mastered the comedy of discomfort and awkwardness well before The Office, and he puts on a master class in that curious art form here. Film doesn’t suit Alan Partridge as well as other media, but Coogan and company have nevertheless delivered a consistently lively satirical comedy that would stand on its own merits, even if it wasn’t weighed down by expectations more than 20 years in the making.
(Currently on VOD. In theaters April 4.)