Not quite ‘Jurassic Park’: Steve Coogan on film

With his most famous character, Alan Partridge, making his cinematic debut in Alpha Papa, we chart the rise of Steve Coogan’s career on the big screen.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

Following in the footsteps of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G/Borat/Bruno triumvirate and, God help us, Leigh Francis’ Keith Lemon, Steve Coogan is the latest British actor to bring a well-known televisual comedy creation to the big screen.

Directed by Declan Lowney, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa marks the cinematic bow for Coogan’s most enduring character: the cheesy, terminally un-self-aware radio DJ who first appeared on BBC Radio 4 show On the Hour (1991-1992), before securing a series of much-loved TV slots as a sports reporter on The Day Today (1994), chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (1994-5), and sitcom I’m Alan Partridge (1997-2002).

Alpha Papa represents not only the highest profile media appearance for the Partridge character, but potentially a crucial point in the career of Steve Coogan, film actor. Is Alpha Papa the perfect opportunity for Coogan to lay Norwich’s finest to rest so he can concentrate on what one suspects is his true ambition: to become a serious and respected film star?

In the 24 years since his film debut, Coogan has forged an intriguing and unpredictable, if inconsistent, career in the movies. Despite his UK roots, nearly two-thirds of his film credits have been in American productions, and there is an entirely different perception of Coogan across the Atlantic as a character actor, thanks to the significantly lower profile of Partridge.

This duality seems appropriate for an actor who has thrived on a willingness to confront, subvert and mischievously accentuate perceptions about his public persona. Out-Malkoviching John Malkovich in the meta-textual stakes, Coogan has played himself (or, at least, a variation thereof) three times in feature films to date. 

With a host of promising projects now on the horizon and a wealth of Hollywood due-paying experience behind him, there’s a real chance that Coogan could ‘break’ internationally, in the not too distant future. So, to toast one of Britain’s most underrated film actors (and, indeed, exports), here’s a brief look back at the varied movie career of Steve Coogan.

1. The Talented Mr Coogan: the early years

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

Coogan began his career as a voice artist and stand-up, creating a host of larger-than-life comedy characters, and appearing regularly on TV’s Spitting Image. However, he made his film debut with a small role as a soldier in Paul Greengrass’s Resurrected (1989).

The cinema bug returned six years later when Coogan made a first stab at American success with a small part (literally: his character was a three-inch tall doctor) in Frank Oz’s adaptation of Lynne Reid Banks’s 1980 children’s novel The Indian in the Cupboard (1995). The film was a box-office flop and Coogan was not to trouble Hollywood again for the best part of a decade.

A year later, in his first major film role, Coogan was cast as Mr Mole in Terry Jones’s The Wind in the Willows (1996), alongside a host of other British TV comedy favourites (Michael Palin, Stephen Fry, Eric Idle). Again, the film was poorly received, but Time Out’s Brian Case was moved enough to dub Coogan’s performance “serviceably velveteen”.

The late 1990s constituted Alan Partridge’s TV high-point (I’m Alan Partridge won big at the 1998 BAFTAs), so Coogan’s involvement in film could justly be seen as an exploratory departure at this point. This certainly rings true for his supporting role as condescending irritant Bruce Tick in Malcolm Mowbray’s comedy Sweet Revenge (1998), which was only ever distributed theatrically in Italy, but eventually screened on British TV under the title The Revengers’ Comedies.

For 2001’s antic, Ealing-inspired comedy The Parole Officer (which he also wrote), Coogan was nominated for a best newcomer award at the BAFTA awards; an ironic gesture given his vast comedy experience up to this point, but nevertheless a sign that his attempts to crack a different medium were being noted.

The film’s theatrical poster, which prominently featured quotes from two of Coogan’s other fictional characters (“Unarguably the greatest film ever made” – Alan Partridge; “A bag of sh*te” – Paul Calf), pointed to the embrace of unabashed self-reflexiveness which would come to mark the actor’s career.

2. The Colour of Steve: breakthrough

24 Hour Party People (2002)

Hot on the heels of The Parole Officer, Coogan’s major film breakthrough arrived with his portrayal of garrulous Factory Records boss Tony Wilson in the freewheeling 24 Hour Party People, his first collaboration with director Michael Winterbottom.

Tapping into his own Mancunian roots with relish, Coogan helped make the film’s local milieu accessible to a wider audience, which happened to include some big Hollywood names: “[it] registered with the industry”, he told comedy critic Bruce Dessau, “People like Edward Norton and Ben Stiller loved it. Jack Black came up to me in a bar and went on a two-hour homage to it.”

No sooner had Coogan tickled ‘hot property’ status than he appeared – as a repellently arrogant version of himself – in a vignette in Jim Jarmusch’s monochrome comedy Coffee & Cigarettes (2003). The hilarious sequence saw Coogan dismiss the attentions of his new-found cousin Alfred Molina (or “Albert”, as Coogan mistakenly calls him), until he discovers Molina is tight with Hollywood maverick Spike Jonze.

The self-deprecation was bold, but his next film, Frank Coraci’s mega-budget Around the World in 80 Days (2004), was a gargantuan flop (he played explorer Phileas Fogg; his first lead in American film). Further disappointment was to follow when Coogan narrowly missed out to Geoffrey Rush on the lead in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, the 2004 film adaptation of Roger Lewis’s damning biography of the same name.

A year later, Coogan found himself on more comfortable terrain back in the UK, again sending himself up in Winterbottom’s witty meta-adaptation of the supposedly unfilmable Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story (2005).

A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

Sight & Sound’s Liese Spencer neatly captured the complexity of his performance as inspired by the director: “Winterbottom engages the viewer by toying with the personas that make up our perception of ‘Steve Coogan’. So we see a slightly precious comedian, a tabloid-friendly shagger, an actor keen to escape the cloying success of his much-loved television character, a gentle lover and a distracted father.” By playing himself, Coogan showed genuine range; a paradox maybe, but a fitting one for a performer with such chameleonic abilities.

3.  I Know What Steve Did Last Summer: box office calling

Despite the failure of Around the World in 80 Days, Coogan was not far away from making an impact in Hollywood, if a relatively minor one. He landed a role as a wax Roman general come to life in Night at the Museum (2006), which was the first huge box-office success to bear traces of the actor’s involvement (the film grossed nearly $600m).

With a connection to that film’s star Ben Stiller established, Coogan took the role of Damien Cockburn, an obnoxious tyro director, in 2008’s Tropic Thunder, and his unexpected, explosive death scene was perhaps the film’s funniest moment.

Night at the Museum (2006)

He reprised his supporting role in 2009’s Night at the Museum sequel, but, as exemplified by turns in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) and The Other Guys (2010), in which he played Hades and a crooked hedge fund manager respectively, it seemed Hollywood had pegged Coogan as the latest in a long line of go-to British villains (it’s notable that Coogan often keeps his British accent for American films).

Still, other opportunities were available. He was called in for brief cameos in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007) and, memorably, Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop (2009) as a furious local man with a problematic garden wall and a bristly moustache.

Utilising his considerable vocal talents, Coogan has also collected pay cheques for voice acting roles in 2010’s Marmaduke (as a “highly intelligent but decidedly minute Dachshund”), and most recently as the wonderfully-named Silas Ramsbottom in Despicable Me 2 (2013).

4.  Steve Wide Shut: indie stalwart?

The least-known aspect of Coogan’s film career in the UK is his mid-noughties run of fairly meaty roles in a succession of US indie dramas and comedies. The reason? Most of them didn’t secure wide cinema release in the US, let alone in Coogan’s home country. Of his early days of trying to get good roles in good American films, he told Dessau: “I feel very similar to the way I felt in British telly 10 years ago. You only have that window for a couple of years when you are new on the scene. It’s a honeymoon period when people might not give you work but at parties people think it is cool to say they’ve heard of you and like your stuff.”

An amusing turn as Ambassador Mercy in Sofia Coppola’s divisive Marie Antoinette (2006) is the exception here, but how many UK viewers will know of Happy Endings (2005), The Alibi (2006), Finding Amanda (2008), Hamlet 2 (2008), or What Goes Up (2009)?

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Of those, Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2 is probably the most interesting, featuring Coogan’s most unhinged turn to date as ex-alcoholic drama teacher Dana Marschz, who, in an adenoidal whine, says things like “I have so much anger. I feel like I’ve been raped… in the face”, and “It’s a kaftan, my friend. Keeps my balls at room temp”. The film seems a clear influence on popular Australian TV show High School High, and is something of a cult favourite Stateside.

In Jonathan Glatzer’s What Goes Up, on the other hand, Coogan had categorically not picked a winner. The film prompted The Village Voice’s Vadim Rizov to complain: “[T]his is rock bottom: I’ve seen a lot of terrible movies in the line of duty, but What Goes Up might be the only genuinely unreleasable one.”

Despite the relative obscurity and varying quality of these roles, Coogan has graduated to a higher standard of indie in more recent times, hence his developing reputation Stateside as a valuable character actor. Michael Winterbottom’s six-part BBC series The Trip (2011) was concertinaed into a film version for US arthouse audiences, and featured Coogan’s deepest, richest and funniest take on himself yet, taking us into the insecure world of a self-regarding but vulnerable would-be star with relationship issues.

That said, he is perilously close to becoming typecast as a pompous prig, a role he played variations on in both Jesse Peretz’s Our Idiot Brother (2011) and Dayton and Faris’s Ruby Sparks (2012).

Epilogue – Cashback: what’s next?

The Look of Love (2013)

2013 could prove to be Coogan’s most important year to date as a film actor. His portrayal of Soho property developer/porn magnate Paul Raymond in Winterbottom’s The Look of Love showcased his ability to carry a film (he appeared in almost every scene), even if many critics, with some justification, complained that Coogan’s rendering of the character was dangerously close to Alan Partridge.

His turn as a selfish father in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s drama What Maisie Knew (opposite Julianne Moore) is earning positive notices, while Alpha Papa constitutes a fascinating tussle between Coogan the actor and Partridge the character over which gets primary recognition rights.

Stephen Frears’ Philomena, in which Coogan stars alongside Judi Dench, for his first UK non-comedy film lead role, is the most intriguing of all. Of the film, the actor says: “[It] is a comic tragedy or a tragic comedy. It’s about two very different people, at different stages of their lives, who help each other and show that there is laughter even in the darkest places.”

The film has been selected in competition at the 2013 Venice Film Festival and certainly has the potential to significantly alter UK audience’s perceptions of what Coogan is capable of. We’ll be watching with interest.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and Philomena were backed by the BFI Film Fund.


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