Friday, October 3, 2008

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: A modest winner

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2008) • View trailer for How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for frequent profanity, drug references and brief but explicit nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.3.08
Buy DVD: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People • Buy Blu-Ray: How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008) [Blu-ray]

Simon Pegg is both very funny and quite shrewd; his recent film roles — starting with his breakout success in Shaun of the Dead — have been carefully calculated to take maximum advantage of his sharp timing and pliable features, which can slide from woebegone to deeply mortified at the blink of an eye.
Newly arrived British journalist Sidney Young (Simon Pegg), unable to make
sense of his job at the pretigious Sharps magazine, gets little sympathy from
fellow staffer Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst), who can't stand her office
companion's rude, crude and boorish behavior. And the dead goldfish? A
failed attempt, on Sidney's part, to gain the attention of a young starlet.

His role as Sidney Young, the focus of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, is certain to continue Pegg's winning streak.

Director Robert Weide's film — deftly scripted by Peter Straughan — is based on the best-selling 2001 memoir by snarky British writer Toby Young, who mercilessly charted his move from London to New York, to become a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, a job for which, as it turned out, he was spectacularly unsuited.

Expecting the prestigious magazine empire's corridors to be filled with the sort of clever, fast-talking journalists who had populated the Algonquin Round Table roughly 90 years earlier — an image reinforced by American movies such as His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story — Young instead discovered a rule-laden environment where all the hacks (writers) had long ago sold their souls to the flacks (publicists) who ruthlessly controlled access to their celebrities-of-the-moment.

"We have this idea that America's this great informal place," Young comments, in the film's press notes, "like one giant speakeasy where everyone is completely themselves. But London's quite like that; New York is nothing like that. New York's much more like London was 100 years ago."

Pegg's Sidney is introduced while struggling to make ends meet at a low-rent scandal-rag vaguely patterned after Spy, by way of any smutty British newspaper that boasts Page 3 girls. After he tries to crash the annual BAFTA Awards — with a pig he blithely claims is "Babe 3" — his cheeky stunt piques the interest of Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), editor-in-chief of New York's prestigious Sharps magazine (Vanity Fair in all but name).

Harding offers Sidney a job, which the eager Brit accepts ... for all the wrong reasons.

Bridges is a howl, all the funnier for the degree to which Harding maintains a straight face while first gently explaining the ropes to the pushy young newcomer, and then — as time passes — finding ample cause to question the decision that brought Sidney to New York.

Because Sidney doesn't just fail to fit in with the Sharps atmosphere; he willfully refuses to. Dressed as if he expected to be joining the crew at Mad magazine — despite being surrounded by Prada-garbed models and tuxedo-clad executives — Sidney cannot believe that this icily formal office environment is for real; he keeps expecting people to appreciate and even participate in his irreverent sense of humor.

Worse yet, the writers at Sharps blithely consent to producing vacuous puff pieces disguised as "revealing glimpses" of equally vacant-eyed celebrities, rather than puncture their self-absorbed balloons in a manner that Sidney remembers Harding doing, back when he was just starting out in the biz, as the youthful editor of a tell-all mag dubbed Snipe.

Sidney, righteously indignant, feels that all his new colleagues have sold their souls. Trouble is, he also wants to be published within Sharps' storied pages ... and he can't do that without playing ball with glacial "handlers" such as Eleanor Johnson (Gillian Anderson).

Sidney's one friend — although she'd be hard-pressed to accept the label — is fellow staffer Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst), who understands the office pecking order and tries to help this newcomer, even when his behavior makes such rescue work utterly impossible.

Their environment is ruled by section editor Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston), a superficially charming but inherently smarmy fellow clearly patterned after Fred MacMurray's Jeff Sheldrake in 1960's The Apartment. (That comparison expands to include one plot element here, but I'll not reveal more.) Huston is marvelously unctuous, his faux smile the invariable bearer of bad news for Sidney, as when the rookie is warned not to chat up the visiting stars.

"But you do it!" Sidney protests.

"When I do it, it's flirting," Maddox ripostes. "When you do it, it's sexual harassment."

That's a marvelous line, and Straughan's script is laden with quite a few more, most of them delivered impeccably by Pegg. My favorite comes when a snarling Sidney describes Maddox as having "hidden shallows."

Although Sidney and Alison seem destined, by story dynamics, to wind up together, that possibility is complicated both by their mutual antipathy, and by the introduction of this story's other key character: budding starlet Sophie Maes, played to sensuous, dim-bulb perfection by hottie-of-the-moment Megan Fox (and rarely has a screen sexpot been more fortunate with her birth name).

Sidney is smitten; he can't help himself. And Sophie is precisely the catalyst who might get him to compromise his ethics for a byline in Sharps. In Sidney's case, the road to hell is paved with all the dresses that barely cling to Sophie's sensuous frame.

Fox channels a long line of screen bombshells for her role, although Marilyn Monroe — notably in All About Eve and Some Like It Hot — leaps readily to mind. With curves to die for and a hilariously blank expression that suggests an idea would die of loneliness between her two ears, Sophie is a dead-on indictment of the dumb-as-bricks celebutantes who routinely push aside crucial world events on the front pages of today's newspapers.

But it's not that simple, and therein lies the richer subtlety of Straughan's screenplay. Sophie may appear innocent and naively vulnerable, but she has a ruthless streak, nurtured by Eleanor's careful handling, that Fox delivers quite convincingly.

Similarly, Sidney isn't solely the brash prankster that his behavior suggests, as we — and Alison — eventually learn. Alison, too, is given her own mild depths by virtue of the novel she's always struggling to write, an obvious cliché made more palatable when Dunst, with just the right note of earnest wistfulness, explains that she's writing it by hand, in a diary-style book she always carries, because that somehow removes it from the hypocrisy of her workday environment.

A few familiar faces pop up in key supporting roles. Miriam Margolyes is a stitch as Mrs. Kowalski, the no- nonsense landlady of Sidney's ghastly apartment; veteran British actor Bill Paterson, perhaps remembered as Renée Zellweger's father in Miss Potter, has a brief but telling part as Sidney's well-published father.

Weide knows this sort of material, having directed numerous episodes of TV's Curb Your Enthusiasm. He understands the importance of both personality and comic timing, but is careful to showcase every member of his film's ensemble cast. In other words, even the always entertaining Pegg isn't allowed to dominate these proceedings: an example of judgment and control that many cowed Hollywood directors — working with the likes of Eddie Murphy or Will Ferrell — would do well to emulate.

The language, I should perhaps warn, is cheerfully smutty; Sidney's scandalous speech is part of what makes him an outcast within Sharps' venerable walls. On the other hand, an incident with an unexpectedly endowed stripper is rather over the top: so pointlessly vulgar that the film doesn't recover for a bit.

The story's passage of time also is handled clumsily. After the set-up is firmly established, and Sidney thoroughly branded the office pariah, we suddenly leap forward several months; not only has Sidney somehow settled in, however awkwardly, but Alison's being a lot friendlier. The narrative obviously demands this, but I can't help feeling that a few key scenes were left behind.

Small stuff, though. As yet another showcase for Pegg, this far earthier riff on The Devil Wears Prada is a lot of fun.

And, needless to say, I'll be reading Toby Young's book. Quite soon.

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