Screens at CIFF: 10/21
World premiere: 24 July, 2013, Norwich, UK

I have no idea if Alan Partridge, the buffoonish, vain media host played on radio, television, and now in a feature film by Steve Coogan, is well-loved in the United Kingdom or not. I know only that he's emphatically not well-loved in the United States, which sucks but isn't hugely surprising; you can count on one hand the number of British TV comedies that have been a really big deal on this side of the Atlantic. I actually have no idea how they do in Canada. I shouldn't have said that like I did.

The point being, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is a film that will have a lot less resonance for Yanks than for other people, and that's a damn pity, because it's one of the funniest films of 2013. All things considered, only a very small amount of that humor comes from specific in-jokes, for that matter, though a certain familiarity with Partridge is something the movie... not takes for granted, I won't put it that way. It starts off by presenting Partridge as a known quantity and tries to get away without having to do the hard work of giving us a reason to want to spend time in his company. Though, to be fair, Alan Partridge is such a scabrous, selfish, reflexively insensitive and socially incompetent man that "want to spend time in his company" isn't really a consideration, anyway. Perhaps that's the hard work the movie skips over: letting us know in advance what kind of a miserable shit we're meant to spend the next 90 minutes with, and not giving us anything resembling a traditional movie protagonist with things like "sympathetic characteristics" (Alpha Papa does eventually find ways to give Partridge a traditional narrative arc and make him someone we can root for, though it manages to do this without having to soften him too much to start nicking away at the comedy).

How this would actually play to a non-fan or a newbie, I honestly can't say. For myself, I'd suppose that the comedy and satire are broad enough, and the target sufficiently universal (though the details are uniquely English), that anybody ought to be able to find it funny, and the only sticking point would be the somewhat unrelieved meanness of the humor, which is not merely of the contentious and difficult tradition of "cringe comedy" - Alan Partridge represents some of the earliest cringe comedy on record, and Armando Iannucci (the character's co-creator, and one of five credited writers on the feature) is perhaps its finest living practitioner.

But that's probably enough of that, and it's own to the movie itself. At the time the movie begins, Partridge is the midday DJ at a seemingly unfocused Norwich radio station, in the process of being purchased by a huge media conglomerate. With every intention of storming into the board meeting and passionately defending the traditions of local media and quirky, personalised expression, he ends up throwing another DJ under the bus to secure his own future; and this same ex-colleague, Pat Farrell (a terrifically pathetic and bleary-eyed Colm Meaney) is so distressed at losing the only thing that gave his life shape in the wake of his wife's death, he holds the newly rebranded studio's launch party hostage, with Partridge just barely managing to escape and then managing to act as go-between for the police, given that Farrell remains quite sure that he has a true friend in the utterly venal Partridge, having not yet noticed the massive "JUST SACK PAT" scrawled on a pad in the board room.

There's a lot of biting commentary on the edges (the film makes an impressively thorough argument against corporate ownership of local media, especially given how far down its list of priorities this theme is). For the most part, though, the satirical target is exactly what it's always been, and it's not exactly subtle: it's a broadside against the self-aggrandizement inherent to deciding that you're someone awesome enough that you should have a public forum to express your opinions in front of other people, and the self-promotion that allows fairly awful, untalented people to rise to the top. Alan Partridge might be fun to watch, and compared to at least some of the characters in the movie, he's not even all that unpleasant, but he's nothing if not an epic basatard. And by allowing him to express his bastardy in ever-deeper ways, the film works terrifically as an attack on celebrity, on fame, on ambition that comes at the cost of people.

An easy target, sure, but what makes Alpha Papa work is that it's consistently hilarious: that's in the eye of the beholder, of course, but Coogan has had a lot of time to perfect his timing in this role, and there are some truly amazing beats when the gap between Alan Partridge's actions and Alan Partridge's brain is just long enough for Alan Partridge to get in trouble (there's a physical gag parody Nazis - and more to the point, Coogan's immediate attempt to roll back on it - that's as funny as anything I've seen in a couple of years). The dialogue is sharp - a particular favorite is the broadcasting admonition "Never make fun of Islam. Only Christianity. And Jews, a little bit" - and the cast jumps into the situation and their characters with both feet. Th ending drags a bit, as the film's action-comedy balance starts to lurch towards action, or at least away from comedy, and watching Partridge being punctured over 90 minutes is less heady than watching it for 30 minutes, but all told, this is quick-footed, unflinching comedy that doesn't slow down or let up for quite a long time, and goes to some wonderfully unexpected places along the way. Mostly, it's funny, not terribly smart or notably well made - but it is very funny, and for that I am grateful.