Nobody does cringe humor quite like the British. And even among that comedic tradition, Steve Coogan has been a standout, largely for his recurring character of Alan Partridge, a right-wing Little Englander with an insulting manner and an overblown opinion of himself. It’s all fueled by a career in the media that gets him to thinking that he’s a whole lot more famous than he really is, which in turn drives him to engage in acts of petty treachery for the sake of self-advancement. Partridge first appeared as a sports reporter in the 1990 radio comedy program On the Hour, a hilarious end-up of clichés in news reporting. That was followed by a number of other TV sitcoms that together, seemed to comprise a loose fictional history of Partridge’s own media career, personal meltdowns and self-inflicted setbacks that eventually land him at a small radio station in Partridge’s home county of Norfolk. And that’s where we find him when the curtain opens on the feature film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (or simple Alan Partridge, as its known in the U.S.).
The story involves Alan being Alan as he runs Mid-Morning Matters, his local radio program of commentary, listener questions and whatever other banter fills up the mid-morning radio slot in small-town England. Partridge is his usual, incompetent and insulting self, but still is somehow one of the bigger talents at the station due to his longer-than-the-others tenure there. All that changes when the station is bought out by a media conglomerate that rebrands the station as Shape FM (“Shape! The way you want it to be!”) with talent and programming that seems to consider NME is the highest form of culture. For a guy like Partridge, the writing is on the wall, and during the first round of layoffs, he betrays fellow DJ Pat Farrell to save his own skin. When Pat (played with humorous menace by Colm Meaney) returns to the station with a shotgun and takes everybody there hostage, Partridge finds himself in the weird position of acting as a liaison between Pat and the cops. The sudden news attention sends Partridge into overdrive, and his every worst impulse comes to the surface as he tries to not let Pat know who got him fired while make the most of a police standoff as a career opportunity. Along the way, we see Alan humiliate himself in any number of ways, and yet remain impervious to any sense of lasting shame or decency.
Coogan plays Partridge so smoothly that he somehow never runs dry or overstays his welcome, which is saying something since this character is all about overstaying his welcome. In addition, while I am not a huge fan of cringe humor—my sympathetic embarrassment is often too much to bear—Alpha Papa manages to stay just on the light side of comedy so that this never gets too dark to enjoy. Comedy of this stripe sometimes goes to a place where either the comedy gets too dark to be funny any longer, or the character has just enough redeeming qualities that we either feel guilty for laughing at them, or we are suddenly exposed to a moment of pathos that tries to give the story a little emotional weight. Not so, here. Partridge never earns our pity because he’s never a good enough guy to deserve it, both because he’s an unrepentant jerk and because he actually betrays people. Plus, his antics are far enough removed from reality that we never feel like we’re laughing down at him. Partridge is a comedic reflection of our worst impulses, but he is never a reflection of anybody real. I’m not sure if that makes Alpha Papa a superior kind of comedy to its darker brethren, but it does make it a more accessible one.
We see this in the movie’s moment of truth, near the end, when Alan and Pat lead the police on a chase to an Oceanside pier which turns into the most incompetent gunfight in history. It ends with Pat getting the drop on Alan, shotgun ready. Pat knows this escapade is over, so it’s time for a proper murder-suicide to end things. In desperation, Alan pushes the only button he can and sings “You’re Always on My Mind” to Pat—a song that reminds Pat of his late wife, but is really all about Alan trying to beg apology by way of the cheapest route possible. It is the closest thing the movie provides to a moment of empathy, and the longer it goes on, the more you wonder how far Alan can take this without blowing it all up. The moment doesn’t last, of course, and as we laugh through the immediate aftermath of it all, we also laugh at a greater realization that in Alan Partridge’s world, there are no great breakthrough moments. There are no major victories. There are only reasons to laugh at ourselves, and the biggest laughs are reserved for those who don’t laugh at themselves nearly as much as they ought to.
Alpha Papa ends on the kind of note that keeps things open for further development, which is the way it should be, because a guy like Alan Partridge will never stop insulting his guests, thinking too much of himself, boggling over how the rest of the world doesn’t understand how brilliant he is, trying to be PC without understanding why, treating people poorly to get ahead, and having a very selective memory of his long history of personal and professional fiascos. And as long as that remains so, there is always the chance we’ll get another movie or show featuring Norfolk’s smallest gift to broadcasting. I can live with that. But more importantly, so can Alan.