The Parole Officer



UK 2001
director : John Duigan
script : Steve Coogan, Henry Normal
cinematography : John Daly
editing : David Freeman
music : ?
stars Steve Coogan, Lena Headey, Om Puri, Steven Waddington
95 minutes

Having established himself alongside Tony Hancock, John Cleese and Chris Morris as one of British TV’s few comic geniuses, Steve Coogan tries the big screen for size with The Parole Officer. His fans won’t be disappointed by the results. But neither will they be especially satisfied, especially if they’re expecting a showcase for Coogan’s talents, or the introduction of a new ‘persona’ to match the monstrous likes of Alan Partridge, Gareth Cheeseman and Paul / Pauline Calf.

It turns out to be a fairly basic comic heist picture, likeable but lightweight. Coogan’s the star, but this isn’t any kind of ‘star vehicle,’ and Simon Garden is a tame creation compared with some of his more entertainingly obnoxious predecessors. He’s a well-meaning and only mildly annoying bumbler with shades of Frank Spencer, Mr Bean, and the characters Woody Allen used to play when he could still get away with chasing (on-screen) skirt. He’s also a probation officer – not a ‘parole officer,’ whatever that may be. Simon is repeatedly described by himself, and by everyone else, as a probation officer. So why the title? Did the real probation service object – or is it something to do with the potential trans-Atlantic audience?

It’s not as if ‘The Parole Officer’ is especially snappy anyway. ‘The Friends of Simon Garden’ would be better – the friends being a trio of former ‘clients’: dignified Asian businessman George (Puri), amiably lunkish ex-boxer Jeff (Waddington) and nerdy computer whizz Colin (Ben Miller). Having successfully transformed them into law-abiding members of society, Simon must lure them back off the straight and narrow so they can help him rob a bank vault. The motive isn’t money – the vault contains a videotape Simon needs to prove his innocence in a murder case and nail the actual killer, bent cop Burton (Stephen Dillane). Adding further complications are teenage tearaway Kirsty (Emma Williams), who discovers the bank-robbery plan and invites herself into the ‘crew,’ and Simon’s tentative romance with a non-bent cop, Emma (Headey).

And that’s what The Parole Officer is full of: complications. While there’s a likeably Ealing-comedy air to the shenanigans, they end up getting out of hand. It was a wise choice to hire a ‘proper’ director (i.e. not just another jaded has-been from British TV sitcoms) in Aussie Duigan, and he makes fine use of many Manchester locales, but he’s basically just a safe pair of hands, ill-equipped to sort out a script that shows signs of drastic over-work. The basic structure is fine, but writers Coogan and Normal pile way too much plot on board, with confusingly hectic results. Promising character details (Jeff is a fishmonger; George was a serial bigamist, etc) are introduced, then left undeveloped or forgotten about, and potentially strong elements are crowded out in the rush.

It’s especially disappointing to see the prominently-billed Jenny Agutter restricted to two brief scenes and a few skimpy snatches of dialogue – especially considering we get far too much of Williams’s well-scrubbed ‘joyrider’ Kirsty, a character which makes no sense at all. Likewise, Headey has very little to do as Emma (seek out Aberdeen and Gossip to see what this strong actress is capable of). Nor does Waddington, but that isn’t a problem as it’s an entertaining performance even when Jeff’s doing or saying very little: both character and actor just get a kick out of being so hulkingly massive, and so does the audience. There’s a great little moment towards the end when Jeff, striding with his besuited ‘gang’ through the marble corridors of Manchester Town Hall puts on some flashy wraparound sunglasses, immediately and effortlessly out-dogging the Reservoir Dogs.

But this is Coogan’s show – it’s a mark of his skill that he’s able to rise above the intermittent chaos and deliver yet another minutely-observed persona, full of brilliant bits of physical and verbal character-comedy. Having tested the waters, let’s hope Coogan the writer lets rip a bit more next time. Here, he’s guilty (along with co-writer Normal) of spreading the jokes round the crowded ensemble a little too thinly. And there are moments when a funnier, wilder, better picture can be glimpsed beneath the slightly bland sitcom feel of the finished product – perhaps this could even have been the first proper British ‘gross out’ comedy. There’s a tear-inducing scene involving a rollercoaster, a curry and a troupe of girl guides that matches anything in the Farrellys’ output.

But having set the bar so high less than half an hour in, The Parole Officer never comes close again. There is a highspot late on, but it isn’t especially comic – an unbilled actor pops up in what must be this year’s most spectacularly unlikely and unexpected star cameos. It’s just as well, since his character is used as an absurd deus ex machina to neatly wrap up the plot’s messy convolutions. To reveal his name, however, would be an unforgivable movie-reviewing sin.

6th August, 2001
(seen Warner Village, Newcastle, Aug-6-01)
by Neil Young
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