‘Alan Partridge” is the cinematic equivalent of Marmite: a much-loved condiment in Britain and a puzzlement almost everywhere else. An acquired taste, certainly, but on the basis of this movie, well worth sampling at least once.
Star Steve Coogan has become a recognizable figure on this side of the pond in such movies as “24 Hour Party People,” the “Night at the Museum” series, and “The Trip,” and he has been broadening his resume with such recent dramas as “Philomena” (which he co-wrote and produced) and “What Maisie Knew.” To the Brits, though, he is Alan Partridge — egotistical radio DJ and legend in his own mind — in much the same way that Rowan Atkinson is Mr. Bean.
The character has been bouncing around since 1991 in various radio programs, TV shows, and Web series, but “Alan Partridge” (titled “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa” in England) is the character’s feature film debut. Directed by Declan Lowney, it opened at number one at the British box office, a fitting return for the national equivalent of an adored family screw-up.
For Stateside newcomers, it’s helpful to think of Alan as combining the fatuous cluelessness of “Anchorman” legend Ron Burgundy with some of the genial idiocy of that movie’s Brick Tamland. Make no mistake, though: Alan’s a high-functioning moron. The host of the local radio show “Mid-Morning Matters” (“Music and Chat for the Norfolk Generation”), he knows how to direct his listeners to the big issues: “Large question: What smell would you miss most?”
“Alan Partridge” could have unloosed the character on America, or even England at large. In keeping with the tatty original concept, it heads the other way. When the radio station is taken over by corporate owners and its format is renamed The Shape (tagline: “The Way You Want It To Be”), Alan desperately avoids the sack by suggesting his colleague, the sweet but slightly psychotic midnight DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), get fired instead. Pat’s response is to take the employees and new owners hostage. Alan, conveniently outside the building at the time of the event, is sent back in as negotiator. Acidly droll British character humor ensues.
In fact, the difference between “Alan Partridge” and a movie like “Anchorman” is the difference between British comedy (retentive) and American (expulsive). The makers of this film — including co-scripters Coogan and Armando Iannucci, writer-director of “In the Loop” — are not above (or beneath) putting Alan down a Porta Potty in his bid to escape Pat’s wrath, but the bit is more of a sight gag than a splat-gag, as it were. And it’s the throwaway lines you almost don’t hear that tend to stick, like an ad for one of Alan’s sponsors (“Banton’s Butchers: Yesterday’s meat at today’s prices”) or the hero’s advice to his long-suffering second banana (Tim Key): “Never criticize Muslims [on-air]. Only Christians. Jews a little.”
“Alan Partridge” could have been an expansion of Coogan’s original character concept into the international big time. Thankfully, it’s not. Instead, the movie is a fond gift to fans and an example of a star remembering his roots. Alan Partridge: Marmite you can depend on.
@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.