REVIEW – Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

Alan Partridge Alpha Papa posterFilmJuice have my review of Declan Lowney’s Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, easily one of the most disappointing films I have seen this year.

Despite his familiarity to and broad popularity with British audiences, the character of Alan Partridge is something of a cult figure; A comedy grotesque born not only from the self-conscious egotism of Steve Coogan but also the subtle brilliance of Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris, two of the most respected and influential writers in contemporary British comedy. Over the years, Partridge has undergone a slow process of evolution from little more than a means of mocking sports journalism to a a more rounded critique of low-end British celebrity and eventually middle-aged masculinity in general. That which began as Motson continued as Wogan and Titchmarsh before concluding as your dad. Given that each turn of the creative handle has injected more history and depth into the character, it is strange to find the beautifully nuanced Partridge of Welcome to the Places of My Life turn up in a knockabout cinematic comedy. Indeed, many of the problems with Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa stem from the fact that the film’s writers keep wanting to produce character comedy in a film set up to deliver broad and accessible jokes. Little surprise that this film seems to have encountered significant problems during the production process:

Most DVD releases contain making-of documentaries that are really little more than advertising designed to convince everyone that actors and crew all had an amazing time making the film. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa breaks violently with that tradition by inadvertently laying bare the film’s tortured production history. The first warning sign appears when Steve Coogan apologises to his fellow actors for the lack of a finished script. From there we move on to talk about on-camera improvisation and some absolutely extraordinary footage in which Colm Meaney appears to be working out his character’s motivations on set while other actors mention the fact that they were frequently given their lines on the morning on which they were due to film the scene. This lack of a clear vision going into the project is evident not only in the sloppy narrative but also the comparative weakness of many of the jokes. Compared to your average cinematic comedy or TV sitcom, this film’s gag-rate is surprisingly low and when the jokes do come they invariably feel as though they could have been improved by a couple of re-writes. In fact, aside from a few good lines and a genuinely funny dream sequence, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is not a particularly funny film. It is not only less funny and less well made than such recent comedies as Bridesmaids, it is significantly less funny than Michael Lehmann’s 1994 comedy Airheads, whose plot is almost identical to that of Alpha Papa.

This is one of those films where you wish you could be a fly on the wall during production meetings as almost every aspect of the film seems to have gone wrong from the choice of locations to the choice of plot right through to the way in which the actors worked on set.

How actors work on set is actually a fascinating question as the rise of Judd Apatow seems to have ushered in an entirely new approach to the production of cinematic comedy. The reason why the trailers for films like Bridesmaids and Get Him to The Greek (both produced by Apatow) feature different iterations of the jokes that appear in the final films is that many contemporary comedies work by shooting numerous variations on the same basic gags. Sometimes these differences will be comedic in nature (different pace, different props, different lines), sometimes they will be technical (different angles, different lightings) and sometimes they will bring out different aspects of the plot or characters, but what all of these differences do is shift the act of creating the film from something that happens in the writers’ heads before production starts to something that happens in the heads of the editors and directors after production has completed.

Given the information contained in the astonishingly candid making-of featurette included on the DVD, it is tempting to conclude that Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa tried to use both approaches at the same time and wound up locating the creative act in the minds of writers and actors as they were sitting on set. Indeed, we see that Coogan and Meaney had a good deal of freedom in creating their parts on set and yet supporting actors were given their parts on the morning in which they were expected to shoot. This suggests that the film went through a continuous process of re-writing in which spontaneous acts of creativity would shape and reshape the characters who were supposed to serve as basis for much of the comedy. This also explains why so many of the gags felt under-written: The writers simply did not have time to finesse them. An experienced director could have imposed order on this process but the producers of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa went with Declan Lowney, whose directorial experience lies mostly in TV comedies like Father Ted. Again, the making-of featurette reveals quite a lot about Lowney’s role as it is full of images of Coogan either directly undermining Lowney or assuming the type of leadership position that you would normally associate with a director.