Although there are one or two belly laughs along the way, for the most part The Parole Officer gets by on the pleasantly old-fashioned charm of a latter-day Ealing comedy. And despite a handful of gross-out moments (involving a roller coaster at Blackpool, a severed head and a wasp) most of the humour comes from the interaction of a good ensemble cast.
It’s the first big-screen vehicle for Steve Coogan, who plays the titular officer as a watered-down, more likeable version of his most famous creation, Alan Partridge. After being set up by a corrupt detective Coogan’s hapless Simon Garden--in fact always identified as a Probation Officer, so presumably the film’s title is an attempt to attract a transatlantic audience--must recruit a motley gang of his ex-con clients to plan and execute a bank robbery in Manchester. Indeed, one of the film’s principal attractions is its affectionate use of that city centre as a setting instead of the more usual seedy London locations of most British caper-comedies.
Coogan’s gang are a familiarly dysfunctional bunch, redeemed by sympathetic performances from, notably, Om Puri as irascible serial bigamist George and the young Emma Williams as serial car thief Kirsty. Not enough effort goes into fleshing out the characters, though, and in particular Lena Headey as Coogan’s policewoman girlfriend is far too thinly sketched to seem convincing. However, much fun is had by all as the team bond, bicker and construct, A Team-style, the tools they need for the big heist. The bank raid itself is the film’s highlight and features a surprising deus ex machina appearance from a very distinguished guest star.
If The Parole Officer never stretches to the sublime heights (or psychological depths) of I’m Alan Partridge, it does play out in a brisk 90 minutes like an extended episode of Coogan’s Run; which is to say it’s got plenty of easygoing charm even if it never pushes any boundaries.
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