Steve Coogan (“Philomena,” “The Trip”) is beginning to build a reputation in the United States, but he has been a household name in Great Britain for 20 years, thanks to his creation of a memorable television character, that of a massively insecure and status-conscious radio personality.
Now that character has his own feature film in “Alan Partridge,” and he’s just as funny as the British have been saying all these years.
Americans already know Ricky Gervais. They know “The Office” and “Extras.” What they don’t know is that Coogan was pursuing that same variety of cringe comedy, the comedy of embarrassment, back in the mid-’90s. Alan Partridge can’t be called the source for Gervais’ David Brent — that creation belongs to Gervais and Stephen Merchant — but to watch Coogan at work is to realize that he helped pave the way.
Much of the comedy in “Alan Partridge” derives from a series of contrasts — the contrast between who Alan is and what he thinks he is; between what he plans and what actually happens; and between what he wants to show and what everyone can clearly see. His motives and strategies are always blatant, yet intended to be covert, and he invariably says the wrong thing, then has to tap dance his way backward and out of trouble.
He’s a wonderful creation, built over the course of years. When we meet him here, he’s a 55-year-old DJ whose station has just been taken over by some heartless, mercenary conglomerate. They’ve brought in some young louts to do the morning show, and the senior radio personalities, Alan and his friend Pat (Colm Meaney), start feeling the skids underneath them.
A particular strength of “Alan Partridge” is that the writers (Coogan among them) don’t trade entirely on the audience’s familiarity with the character, but rather come up with a flashy, eventful story in which Alan can be showcased in a variety of contexts. (Maybe they were thinking of the American market — whatever the reason, they made a smart choice.)
Soon, Alan finds himself as the go-between in a hostage negotiation, something he undertakes, not out of any great sense of civic responsibility, but because he knows that an act of public heroism will bolster his position at the station.
In a strange way, Alan is an appealing character. He’s not like Gervais’ David Brent, who is some arresting variety of monster, as seen from the outside. Alan’s vanity, his cowardice, his need for self-promotion, his desire to be admired, his insatiable craving for attention and his recurrent career anxiety are things everyone can understand because everyone has felt those things, at least in miniature.
The way Alan feels on the outside is the way a lot of people feel at their most vulnerable. And so we watch him and recognize him, and then cringe and wish him luck.
(At Screenland Armour.)