WFTB Score: 5/20
The plot: Unpopular parole officer Simon Garden no sooner arrives in Manchester than he becomes embroiled in murder and police corruption. To free himself from the tyranny of bent Inspector Burton, he needs to retrieve a videotape from a bank vault; and to carry out the job, he needs to lure his three success stories away from the straight and narrow while keeping his potential new love, policewoman Emma, in the dark.
Simon Garden (Steve Coogan) is not a well-loved figure in the Blackpool parole office; and when a tribunal asks for supportive voices, he can only muster three reformed convicts out of the thousand or so he has worked with: ageing Asian George (Om Puri), dumb lump Jeff (Steven Waddington) and effeminate tech expert Colin (Ben Miller). Garden’s not sent to Coventry but to Manchester, where he encounters both arrogant Inspector Burton (Stephen Dillane) and the more approachable WPC Emma (Lena Headey) whilst investigating the misdemeanours of 15-year-old joyrider Kirsty (Emma Williams).
Simon’s not convinced that Kirsty has anything to do with drugs found in her car and tails Burton to a lapdancing club, where he witnesses the Inspector throttling the accountant of drugs baron Cochran (John Henshaw). Garden’s spotted and Burton intimidates him into silence by threatening to frame him for the murder; but Garden doesn’t take well to the threat and resolves to prove Burton’s guilt. The only way to do this is by retrieving the club’s CCTV tape, which Cochran has deposited in a safety deposit box at the local bank; and knowing former criminals turns out to be a perk of the job, even if Victor, a potentially useful master of disguise, has apparently met his maker. Can Simon persuade his reformed charges to backslide? Can he keep the keen-to-help Kirsty under control? And can his ‘gang’ keep clear of the law while Simon woos the lovely Emma?
Although he had played medium-sized roles in films such as The Wind in the Willows and The Indian in the Cupboard, The Parole Officer was Steve Coogan’s first film as lead; so you would imagine he and long-time co-writer Henry Normal would make absolutely sure that their script was as good as it could possibly be. Which makes it all the more puzzling that the film is horrendously written. In general terms, the comedy is based firmly in the gutter, concentrating on bodily fluids, genitalia, boobs and a sequence of (literally) toilet humour; more specifically, the plotting is poor, relying on various unlikely contrivances to force the story into some sort of shape, not least Emma instantly falling in love with the distinctly unloveable Simon (a deleted scene suggested they were at school together, where he stood up for a teacher’s rights).
Victor’s incredibly useful workshop is a lazy plot device, while there’s also a clunking Deus ex machina via a cameo which I won’t spoil for the uninitiated – but don’t get too excited. The poor writing might be excused if it led to a ridiculously overblown set-piece, but one of the movie’s big dramatic moments is – I kid you not – whether a beachball will inflate successfully. And since little of the comedy works, the viewer has plenty of time to poke at the plot: wouldn’t an experienced copper like Burton take CCTV into account? Couldn’t Simon manage another two minutes without having something to eat? How does he get into that light fitting? What’s the deal with the wasp?
The other problem with the writing is that it gives The Parole Officer paper-thin characterisations. Coogan is a good comic actor and capable of mimicking anyone, so it’s unfortunate that his Simon Garden copies many of Alan Partridge’s (for which read Coogan’s own) mannerisms. The members of Garden’s ‘gang’ are no more than vague sketches, looking the part (Puri’s George seems to be an interpretation of Tom Wilkinson’s Gerald in The Full Monty) but having no depth whatsoever.
They’re no Ladykillers, that’s for sure, and although the addition of a recidivist girl into the mix isn’t as awkward as it could have been – she might have been a dreadful brat – Emma Williams can’t do much to liven up the part of Kirsty. I’ve already mentioned Emma, whose motivations are all over the place (poor Lena just grins and bares it), while Dillane smarms effectively without bothering to prove himself a villain. And then it just ends, with a snog and an uneasy dance number.
British comedies very often get a bad rap; but if Four Weddings and a Funeral proved that Brits could write filmworthy material, The Parole Officer shows that all too often we churn out rubbish that is barely good enough for TV*. It’s no Sex Lives of the Potato Men – come to that, it’s no Kevin and Perry Go Large – but Coogan’s talents really deserve better than this forgettable, lowbrow and lazy outing. Still, since he co-wrote the thing, he’s only got himself to blame.
NOTES: This isn’t intended to be a criticism of TV. Indeed, Coogan has written for and/or appeared in some excellent television programmes (the Partridge material, Cruise of the Gods and Saxondale, to name just a few). My guess – since they’ve not returned to film scripts – is that Coogan and Normal realised that they should stick to what they know, namely short-form writing for comic characters.