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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Coogan’

There is no doubt a very good reason why Steve Coogan, Armando Ianucci, Peter Baynham and their various colleagues have chosen this year to release an Alan Partridge movie, but for the life of me I can’t quite make out what it is. It’s not as though all their careers have been in the doldrums, and they’re in need of a relatively safe bet to make some money – Coogan has led one film in the last twelve months and played major roles in a couple of others. Nor is it that public interest in and demand for more Alan is currently at a peak – it would have been a relatively easy prospect to secure funding for this project at any time in the last fifteen years, and I always got the impression that it was Coogan himself who was reluctant to spend too much time playing Norwich’s famous son. Nevertheless, here it is – Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (the subtitle is largely irrelevant), directed by Declan Lowney.

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Everyone in the UK, surely, has some idea who Alan Partridge is, but I suspect he is much less celebrated in the wider world. Suffice to say that Partridge has bestridden the media landscape like a sports-casual-clad colossus for over two decades now, first rising to fame as a radio sports correspondent, then exhibiting a magisterial grasp of interviewing techniques in various branches of the BBC. Sadly, his chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge was cancelled in 1994 due to unacceptably low viewing figures (and the high mortality rate amongst the guests), since when the great man has retreated to become a legend in Norfolk-based local radio.

This is where we find him as the film opens. The station at which he works has just been bought by a large media company, who are intent on making changes – and when Alan discovers his name is on a list of potential sackees, he does the honourable thing and persuades them to get rid of fellow veteran DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) instead of him. Pat takes this news badly and proceeds to take everyone in the building hostage at gunpoint, insisting on being allowed to air his grievances over the airwaves. Furthermore, he refuses to speak directly to the police, accepting only one man as an intermediary and negotiator. And that man’s name is Alan Partridge.

In some ways this is a slightly odd film: Colm Meaney gets his name above the title, presumably because he has some sort of profile in the US and this will help when it comes to marketing the film over there. I still can’t imagine this will be an easy proposition as when all is said and done this is still yet another TV comedy spin-off movie, and a very, very British one. The humour is basically a mixture of slapstick farce and comedy of embarrassment – I can potentially see the former reaching an international audience, but not the latter.

This is not to say that the film is not funny, because it is – if you get the Alan Partridge character, anyway. Alan’s mixture of political incorrectness, brazen self-absorbtion, bad taste and general social awkwardness is the same as it has ever been, but as ever there are moments of pathos that ensure he doesn’t come across as a complete monster. The brilliance of the character is in the sheer precision and attention to detail with which he is written and performed, and this has not changed: one of the funniest sequences in the film is the opening credits, which simply show Alan singing along to the radio while driving to work. But he’s still quite a subtle creation, and I’m not sure the big screen is Alan’s natural home.

To repeat, though, this is a funny film that’s worth the price of admission. Steve Coogan is always, always worth watching, and here’s he’s supported by a very strong cast of British comedy stalwarts. Meaney is quietly rather impressive, inasmuch as he stops Coogan completely dominating all their scenes together, and long-term Partridge followers will appreciate appearances by several members of Alan’s regular supporting cast off the telly.

Even so – I have laughed more, and been more engaged by, other comedy films recently. This is perhaps a little too low-key and parochial, compared to – for example – The World’s End, and the siege plotline feels a bit underpowered. There are moments when the story doesn’t quite hang together, too. Then again, I’ve always preferred the very early Alan Partridge radio and TV shows in terms of their basic comedy value, rather than the later more character-based stuff. Nevertheless, for me this doesn’t quite do either Alan Partridge or Steve Coogan full justice. Still a decent, entertaining comedy though.

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It must be quite curious to be Steve Coogan: undoubtedly a massive talent, and a man with a significant international career (he tends to pop up in one or two Hollywood movies a year, albeit usually quirky supporting roles), easily capable of selling out major live tours in the UK – and yet his CV is still dominated by one comedy character he first performed on radio over twenty years ago. He might, perhaps, be forgiven for feeling that his career has faltered somewhat, certainly compared to some of the predictions that were being made ten or fifteen years ago.

And yet he can still lead, and perhaps more importantly open a movie. Many of his most interesting recent parts have emerged from his collaborations with Michael Winterbottom, an endlessly prolific and unpredictable director. It was Coogan and Winterbottom who made 24 Hour Party People in 2002, a look at a particular slice of British cultural history framed as a biopic (and possibly the only biopic in history whose subject turned up uninvited to press conferences promoting the film, solely in order to stand at the back and heckle the film-makers).

There’s something similar about Winterbottom’s new movie, The Look of Love, which Coogan also stars in – although they are unlikely to be harassed by its disgruntled subjects this time around, as most of the principals are safely deceased. Coogan plays Paul Raymond, the self-styled ‘King of Soho’ (this was apparently going to be the title of the movie until it transpired that Raymond’s own heirs were planning a biography with that title).

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The movie opens in 1958, with Raymond presented as a fairly small-time seaside impressario (his big success is with a show featuring topless lion-taming) However, a move to London and the opening of the glitzy ‘Raymond Revuebar’ leads to much more substantial success, and the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s powers of theatrical censorship in 1968 offers much wider opportunities in the field of adult entertainment.  As the film acknowledges, you are never likely to lose money with a business plan based around charging to look at naked women, but the financial rewards Raymond reaps come at the expense of the collapse of his marriage (Anna Friel plays Raymond’s wife, and does so rather well).

New girlfriend (Tamsin Egerton) in tow, Raymond enters the seventies intent on an odyssey of bacchanalian excess and slightly shabby bad-taste glamour, branching out into property investment and adult publishing. As time passes, the film makes it increasingly clear that the only meaningful relationship in Raymond’s life is the one he has with his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots, who I believe we can legitimately refer to as a rising star following her many recent successes), but the involvement of a fragile young woman in the world Raymond inhabits comes at a price.

As I mentioned, Steve Coogan is best-known as a comedy performer, and the shadow of the Partridge to some extent hangs over his work here – it’s hard not to conclude that his history playing pompous and slightly absurd figures was one of the factors which led to his being cast here. And, apart from the three women already mentioned, he’s backed up by a supporting cast which is essentially a who’s who of contemporary British comic talent – everyone from David Walliams to Dara O’Briain (who, somewhat oddly, appears to have been cast as Alexei Sayle, though this is left implicit).

So, as you’d expect, this is a film containing some very funny moments, most of them admittedly in questionable taste – the subject matter of Raymond’s businesses and lifestyle has resulted in the film getting an 18 certificate (which, incidentally, has doubtless impacted on its box office returns – I was the only punter at the afternoon showing I attended). Coogan carries all this off with the aplomb you might expect.

However, the strange thing about The Look of Love is that the casting doesn’t really reflect the main thrust of the story, because this is not at its heart the off-colour farce or jolly mickey-take of Raymond you might expect. This is really a tragedy, of sorts, and an attempt to examine the paradox at the heart of Paul Raymond – an absolutely devoted, loving father, who nevertheless uses and exploits women on a literally industrial scale, his success as a property tycoon, entrepreneur, and pornographer making him the wealthiest man in the UK.

Then again, I may be misreading the intent of the film, as this element of the plot takes a while to really get going, prior to which we are treated to various jolly japes and escapades featuring Raymond and his relationships with the characters played by Friel and Egerton. On the other hand, the film is framed by an absolutely desolated Raymond recalling his relationship with his daughter, so…

Anyway, Coogan gives a fantastic performance, managing to find some humanity behind Raymond’s ridiculous image, and he’s genuinely touching when confronted by the failures of his various relationships and the various tribulations in his daughter’s life. Imogen Poots is as classy as ever as Debbie Raymond.

Despite all this, I didn’t find this as satisfying as some of Coogan and Winterbottom’s previous collaborations. Partly this is down to the unevenness of tone, partly due to a sense of having seen this kind of film done numerous times before. I think perhaps it’s also down to the ambiguity of the film – on the one hand there’s a lot of implied criticism of Raymond’s overblown lifestyle and business concerns, but on the other we’re treated to a lot of shapely female flesh in various poses and combinations. As ever, there’s a thin line between making fun of prurience and simply being prurient yourself.

However, this isn’t a bad film, by any means – the period settings are convincing, the story rattles along engagingly, and the performances are accomplished. It never quite gets to the heart of its central character, but it still does a good enough job of telling his rather peculiar story to be worth a look.

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A sure sign that Autumn is close upon us comes in the form of the cinema shedding its rugged, manly, summer masculinity of tone and becoming altogether rather more feminine in outlook. Well, possibly I exaggerate a bit, but I can’t imagine all those sprawling and bombastic superhero blockbusters being put together with ladies in mind. Romantic comedies of the ilk of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Ruby Sparks are a different beast entirely. Well, this is being marketed as a romantic comedy, but I suspect this is simply the least inaccurate category into which to pop this slightly strange film.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer whose career has been hobbled by his writing a brilliant and hugely successful novel at a very young age. Now he is in thrall to the tyranny of the blank page, seriously struggling with that difficult second novel (the film does bang into that old problem of how to depict somebody writing in a cinematic way – failing to find an answer, we just see Dano’s hands and eyes as he bashes away at his keyboard – presumably for aesthetic reasons, Calvin is the only professional writer in the world still using a manual typewriter). He is finding life quite trying despite the well-meaning assistance of his family and agent. However, as a result of advice given by his analyst (Elliott Gould), Calvin finds himself beset by strange and vivid dreams, all concerning a free-spirited Bohemian young woman (oh, zzzzz), whom he christens Ruby Sparks. She is played by Zoe Kazan.

Calvin’s dreams of Ruby provoke a sudden and welcome burst of creativity, but this is accompanied by odd events around the house: strange and rather intimate feminine items start popping up all over the place, to the bemusement of Calvin and his friends. Then, after a particularly intense writing session, our hero awakes one morning to find the previously completely fictitious Ruby in the house with him, apparently completely corporeal and utterly convinced she is his girlfriend…

Well, it’s a novel opening for a film, I’ll grant you that. I suppose it sounds like the stuff of a wacky, whimsical little comedy film, very mainstream, and quite probably starring someone like Vince Vaughn. But it isn’t. Instead, to begin with it comes across very much like an off-day Woody Allen script brought to the screen by Miranda July. I am aware I am throwing in an obscure cultural reference or two in there, but that’s the territory I’m afraid – the biggest surprise about this film is that it’s got a fairly major mainstream release, because it has ‘indie arthouse cult rave’ written all over it.

This is the kind of film where the central characters float around with no visible means of support, basically surveying their own navels. There are lots of scenes where they agonise at length over their tangled psyches and personal lives with their much more conventional friends and family while having barbecues or playing sports, all in a very naturalistic yet terribly articulate manner. Once you strip out the central fantasy conceit, this is really what you’ve got here.

The previous film from these directors, Little Miss Sunshine, was apparently very well-received, which may explain the presence in this film of a remarkably strong supporting cast – as well as Gould, there is Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, and a particularly good Steve Coogan. Chris Messina also does a good job of wringing a few laughs out of the script. But it’s hampered by incredibly mannered and self-conscious performances by Dano and Kazan: the film soon turns into an examination of a romance between two of the most irritating people you will ever see.

That said, I suppose Zoe Kazan is reasonably good in a fairly demanding part – on the other hand (and given the nature of the story this is sort of ironic) she wrote the script herself, in addition to exec producing the thing, so she must take her share of the blame for a film which I found a rather trying experience.

This film doesn’t really have the ideas to justify its running time and as a result it does feel like it’s dragging on horribly in quite a few places. The poster for it outside the coffeeshop listed the running time as 164 minutes rather than 104, and as a result quite early on I was dismally checking my watch and trying to work out how they were possibly going to sustain the story for that long. Thankfully, they don’t even try: another hour of this film and I might well have run amok in the cinema.

And, quite apart from the general tone and style of the thing, this film is palpably very indie-ish in the way it doesn’t seem to want to settle down and be one particular thing. Okay, so there’s a central romance going on – but there’s also clearly some sort of statement about the creative process and that oft-mentioned moment when your characters achieve a life of their own being made.

(My characters, when I write fiction, show no willingness to do this, which may be yet another reason why my fiction is generally so lousy. Then again, as I’m planning another go at NaNoWriMo this year and the only book idea to achieve any traction in my head is an HP Lovecraft pastiche of such comprehensive unpleasantness I’m slightly repelled to consider it myself, perhaps this is no bad thing. Where were we…?)

Oh, yes: and then beyond this Ruby Sparks tries to get into stuff about the nature of relationships and the control dynamics within them. There’s some quite dark material here. What the film never really manages to be, unfortunately, is either consistently funny or romantically involving. It always seems a bit overwhelmed by its own irky-quirky BoHo indie conceit and style, and constantly a little too pleased with itself. The result is a movie that’s being marketed as a romantic comedy, but didn’t really make me laugh and actively put me off the notion of having a relationship. It’s a competent realisation of a rather unsatisfying script – a distinctive film, but also a deeply peculiar and somewhat annoying one.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 18th 2002:

Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People is the vaguely true story of 15 years in the strange double life of Anthony Wilson, by day a local TV news reporter, by night a self-declared visionary pop impressario and music business mastermind, a man who played a crucial role in the rise of club culture (and drug culture), a man fundamental to the regeneration of Manchester, the man who gave the world Factory Records, the Hacienda nightclub, New Order, and the Happy Mondays.

In the film Wilson is portrayed by the comedian Steve Coogan, a shrewd choice as Wilson’s image – a pretentious, middle-class faux-intellectual prat surrounded by working-class pop warriors – isn’t too far removed from that of Coogan’s most famous creation, Alan Partridge. Coogan plays the image, and neither he nor the script try particularly hard to uncover the real man. The film openly admits to being more interested in legend than truth – at one point Wilson discovers his wife (Shirley Henderson) in flagrante with Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks, at which point the real Devoto pops up and makes it absolutely clear he doesn’t remember this actually happening. It’s a neat post-post-modern moment, but this kind of deliberate, ironic distancing means that serious events such as the suicide of singer Ian Curtis (played by Sean Harris) lack any real emotional impact.

It’s played mostly for laughs anyway, by Coogan and other TV comics like John Thomson, Peter Kaye, and Keith Allen. Obviously some impersonation of quite famous people is required, with variable results: John Simm is spookily convincing as Barney Sumner, but the guys playing the Happy Mondays have only a fraction of the charisma of the real Shaun and Bez, and Ralph Little is simply too young-looking and un-hairy to play Peter Hook. There are cameos from survivors of the scene, too: the real Tony Wilson, Horse from the Mondays, Mani from the Stone Roses, Clint Boone from the Inspiral Carpets, and many more.

It’s all shot on digital video (which if nothing else allows archive concert footage to be edited in less incongruously) and Winterbottom’s direction is suitably sardonic and arch. But there are no real insights into the 80s Manchester scene, and probably not much to attract those who aren’t already into this kind of music. It’s really not bad at all, but for a film with this kind of raw material to work with, the fact that in the end 24 Hour Party People is only not bad and quite amusing is in its own way a significant criticism. Fantastic soundtrack, though.

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