Whether it is a hit or miss, The Parole Officer introduced us to the big-screen efforts of Steve Coogan. Far away from the allure of Alan Partridge, he tries to shed the Norwich hero and takes on the role of Simon Garden, the hapless police officer framed for a crime he did not commit. There is irony in the sense that, the only way to prove his innocence is to commit a crime elsewhere, but it is not one that Coogan or director John Dugian are up to the task of entertaining. The Parole Officer concerns itself with an “annoying” character, his clients, colleagues and tribunal all agree on such a matter. People give him the stink eye, call him names and avoid his path for no particular reason.
Coogan and Dugian forget the key to establishing such a character is to have them actually be annoying. They are attempting to play off what is, essentially, the natural Coogan charm, as something people do not find endearing. Perhaps audiences did not find these tokenisms and stylings too interesting or effective at the time, but from a contemporary view, it is hard not to enjoy him. But are we meant to enjoy Coogan here? Everyone appears to be out to get him, and although he has gainful employment and a friend in the form of Emma (Lena Headey) Stephen Dillane, who plays the villainous Inspector Burton, is equally ill-established. He kills a man in the opening scenes as Coogan chokes on crisps, and that’s about all for his relationship with backstories and build-up.
“We’ll meet again, young man,” says Death. That is the one solid, surprising line to be found throughout The Parole Officer, and the humour is more from the fright Coogan exhibits than the line itself. Much of the humour hopes to depend on the familiar cogs of the genre, but many of them are foolish or ill-thought-out. Coogan attempts to munch on crisps while observing a shaky deal go down between antagonists. It is so far removed from reality that it loses the humour. Where the humour should be evident (eating a loud snack in a time of necessary stealth) is good on paper, but it is the lack of build-up, again, that the character has. He is not annoying, he is an idiot, and Coogan is far better than this.
With its dated comedy and lack of compromise for the story, The Parole Officer is a placid offering from men much funnier than this film would let on. Coogan is a natural comedian and is a fine, fine presence on the screen, but his work here is less than stellar. He tries to channel the awkward misfit, not quite shaking the roles that brought him to the limelight. Quintessentially British, but in a bad way. The awkward spot between the post-20th century and the calm before Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead storm. The genre at this point was very much dead. Spice World was in its dying days, and so, it would seem, was The Parole Officer. A pay-off not worth the hassle of wading through all the weak spots and blemishes. Condom jokes, bad puns and all the bloated perversions of the genre that would soon burst under the weight of the 21st century. It could not come sooner.