The Parole Officer

Partridge spreads his wings, without serving his time
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It's difficult now to imagine a world in which Alan Partridge doesn't exist. The genius of Steve Coogan's impersonation was in embodying not just a nightmarishly funny hybrid of sports "personalities" but a recognisable monster of Middle England, thornproofed by protective waxes of snobbery and self-delusion.

Partridge is difficult to imagine and difficult to forget – which is where the problems of The Parole Officer, Coogan's first solo venture into film, begin.

Coogan plays Simon Garden, the parole officer of the title, who as a character is pitched somewhat uncertainly between hapless klutz, tiresome jerk and regular guy. These different facets would ideally meld into a credible comic whole, yet they never really do, partly because there seems to be no organic fit between the character and the farcical set-pieces he's put through, and partly because too much of Coogan's past creation has seeped into the mannerisms of his present: the Partridge keeps intruding into the Garden. It's mostly little things, but then the little things are what Coogan has observed so brilliantly and made so memorable in the past. Stripped of Partridge's bumptious self-importance and lunatic ambition, Garden is at once more likeable and less fascinating than the Pringle-jumpered prat.

The plot engineers a situation whereby Garden, having witnessed the murder of an accountant by a bent police officer (Stephen Dillane), must retrieve the videotaped evidence from a bank vault in Manchester. To achieve this goal he recruits a trio of offenders whom he has previously managed to set on the road to reform (Om Puri, Ben Miller, Steven Waddington) to help him rob the bank, while a teenage joyrider (Emma Williams) tags along as getaway driver. The film wants to be considered in the heist comedy tradition of The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers, but to stand a chance of that it would have to be paced about five times faster and be ten times funnier. It would also need a great deal more charm.

The slapstick is badly miscued; there are surely more sophisticated ways of raising a laugh than to have Garden, fresh from a curry dinner, vomiting copiously over his fellow passengers on a rollercoaster ride shortly afterwards. If the filmmakers want to know how modern slapstick really works they should rent a couple of Jackie Chan videos one night.

Why John Duigan thought it might be worth his while directing this remains mysterious. Having made his name with the lovely coming-of-age comedies The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting some years back, he was either made an offer he couldn't refuse or else decided that aimless competence was all that would be required.

The lesson of The Parole Officer is all too familiar: TV comedians should serve a probationary period studying the pros and cons of film-making before being allowed to work outside their natural environment.