Dir: John Duigan. UK. 2001. 90 mins.
Few television comedians manage to become film stars, and fewer still succeed outside their home turf. But The Parole Officer should serve lengthy time at the British box-office on the strength of Steve Coogan's huge popularity as a stand-up comic and small-screen character actor, compounded by the anticipation attending his first major film role. A sunny future domestically also awaits on video further down the line.
Lacking major international names in the supporting cast, the film's overseas prospects are more uncertain (though there is an amusing cameo from an unbilled Omar Sharif). Still, Coogan's own profile may rise after the release of 24 Hour Party People early next year, Michael Winterbottom's forthcoming film about the vibrant Manchester music scene from the late 1970s to early 1990s, in which Coogan takes the lead role. Certainly The Parole Officer represents a much sturdier commercial prospect for DNA Films following the company's disappointing debut production Beautiful Creatures.
Coogan could easily have chosen to spin a feature-length character out of one of his successful TV sketch personae: the yobbish Paul Calf, smarmy lounge singer Tony Ferrino or the blazer-wearing failed talkshow host Alan Partridge. Instead, he has created a new alter ego who bears a recognisable resemblance to his stablemates but is considerably more likeable and credible than his predecessors in the Coogan canon.
Like them, Simon Garden is a mildly irritating loser: a well-meaning but nerdy probation officer who has only ever rehabilitated three prisoners in his entire career and who, forcibly relocated from the seaside resort of Blackpool to the tough big city of Manchester, finds himself slightly out of his depth in these murkier waters.
His mettle is put to the test when a crooked police chief (Stephen Dillane) frames him for murder and he is forced to prove his innocence by robbing a bank vault containing an incriminating CCTV surveillance video. To do so, he urges his three reformed crooks (Om Puri, Ben Miller and Steven Waddington) to return temporarily to a life of crime, much to their reluctance and astonishment. Also along for the ride is one of Simon's new clients, a feisty teenage ramraider (Emma Williams). The central gag is the idea of a klutz from the Social Services attempting Secret Service style derring-do, and Coogan proves himself fully up to the exacting physical demands of the role, performing many of his own stunts.
Most of the hit-and-miss humour relies heavily on pratfalls and slapstick and is definitely on the unsophisticated side: in one typical scene, for instance, Simon breaks the oversized phallus off a fertility statue in an exhibition of erotic art, and escapes detection by faking acute diarrhoea in the gallery toilet. Some inconsistencies in the plotting also suggest that Coogan and co-writer Henry Normal haven't yet mastered the move from sketch-length to feature-film scripts.
As Coogan himself remarks of Simon: "You'd buy him a drink but you wouldn't want to spend the whole evening with him," and the film wisely does not allow itself to become a one-man-show. Heavyweight dramatic actors such as Puri and Dillane bring heft to the secondary roles, while Lena Headey, in her first major comic turn, projects a cool intelligence as the film's romantic interest, a sexy policewoman who finds herself drawn to Simon's unlikely charms. John Duigan's direction gives all these actors the space to develop the relations between the seven or eight major characters.
Prod co: DNA Films
Co-prods: Figment, Toledo
UK dist: UIP
Int'l sales: UIP
Prods: Duncan Kenworthy, Andrew Macdonald, Callum McDougall
Scr: Steve Coogan, Henry Normal
Cinematography: John Daly
Prod des: Tom Brown
Ed: David Freeman
Main cast: Coogan, Lena Headey, Om Puri, Stephen Dillane, Steven Waddington, Ben Miller