The Parole Officer (2001)
“Fighting crime the only way he knows how. Badly.”
Director: John Duigan
Cast: Steve Coogan, Lena Headey, Emma Gilmour
Synopsis: A failed parole officer framed for murder must enlist the help of his former clients to clear his name.
Steve Coogan’s characters fall into two camps. There’s the enduring awfulness of Alan Partridge on one side of the divide, and the uncouth awfulness of Paul Calf and his sister, Pauline on the other — Partridge has been around for twenty years, and with the recent release of Alan Partridge, Alpha Papa, his popularity shows no sign of abating, while the Calfs, who’ve never enjoyed the same level of popularity as Partridge, remain instantly recognisable Coogan figures. It’s the uniqueness of their characters, which nevertheless contain traces of attitudes and foibles that are recognisable in real people that makes them popular. His less successful characters are those who possess infrequently displayed traces of awfulness beneath a dominant veneer of dull normality. Each of them occupy a unique position within a narrow spectrum and are therefore almost indistinguishable from one another. Simon Garden, the ineffectual hero of The Parole Office, is too dull to be extraordinary, but he’s Partridge-lite in the first half of the movie before becoming a run of the mill everyman anti-hero for the final half.
Garden is the eponymous parole officer, seeking employment as the movie opens because everybody at his last place found him too annoying to work with. He accepts a position as parole office in Manchester, where one of his first clients is Kirsty (Emma Williams) a rebellious teenage girl with a long record of car theft to her name. His work naturally brings him into contact with police officers, one of whom, Inspector Burton (Stephen Dillane), plants a load of drugs on Kirsty while she lies unconscious after crashing the stolen motor she was driving. While Garden’s looking into her case, he witnesses Burton throttle to death the accountant of Cochran (John Henshaw) the nightclub owner with whom Burton has enjoyed a lucrative illicit partnership. He flees when spotted by Burton and Cochran, but leaves his wallet behind, making it easy for Burton to frame him for the murder. And when Garden goes to report the murder to the police he finds himself being interrogated by none other than Burton himself.
Garden initially decides to get out of Manchester, and gracelessly cancels a date he had with planned with a WPC named Emma (Lena Headey). Exactly what a hot looking young woman like Emma sees in a doofus like Garden is a mystery, and proves to be one of the least convincing strands of the plot, not only because she’s so far out of his league it’s surprising she can actually see him, but also because a guy like him wouldn’t miss out on a shot with a chick like her no matter how much crap was going on in his life. One shining light, and all that — right? Anyway, dump her he does before seeing a grinning Burton on TV as the policeman prepares to receive his award for bravery for rescuing Kirsty from her wrecked car, and suddenly remembering that there was a CCTV camera in the stockroom of Cochran’s in which the murder took place. If Garden can get his hands on that tape he can clear his name and take Burton down. But Cochran has placed the tape in a safety deposit box in the West Clyde Bank as protection.
Garden rounds up the only three men he ever successfully represented with the intention of breaking into the bank’s vaults and relieving it of the CCTV footage. There’s George (Om Puri) in Blackpool, whom Garden finally talks around during an arbitrary — and oddly out of place — gross-out scene, which sees him jettisoning his dinner all over the unfortunate schoolgirl in the seat behind him on The Big One, a rollercoaster ride so terrifying that my mate actually got a nosebleed while we were queuing to go on it. Next there’s Jeff (Steven Waddington), a former criminal who has now found a new life as a fishmonger under the domineering thumb of his mother, and finally Colin (Ben Miler), a computer geek with dyed blonde hair and strange sideburns. Together, the four of them possess a diverse range of skills that enable them to come up with a workable plan to break into the bank in full daylight — although the plan involves shuffling through a narrow ventilation shift — which provides Kirsty with the cue to make a fortuitous reappearance.
The Parole Officer is one of those likeable British comedies that provides a scattering of laughs and a roll call of eccentric — but likeable — anti-heroes, but never really manages to generate any memorable moments or that one big laugh that’s needed to inject some life into the story. The critics panned it, but it’s not that bad. Coogan’s comic timing is impeccable, but he struggles to restrain the ghost of Alan Partridge and never has you really rooting for his character, who might not be as annoying as the script would initially have us believe but is remarkably bland in every respect. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Parole Officer is the astonishing range of musical styles it uses on its soundtrack — every recognisable musical genre tradition seems to be represented at some point.