October 13, 2008

Movie Review: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

howtolosefriends2_largeSuch an unwieldy title for a movie that is straightforward and easy to predict. The movie is loosely based on the memoirs of Toby Young who spent five years writing for Vanity Fair magazine. This is a fact that you would likely not know unless you read it somewhere (like this review), as the magazine has been changed to the fictional Sharps and the lead's name has become Sidney Young. In the end it does not matter much, as the end result would likely be the same. Heck, I am not even sure quite how close this gets to the truth, although I have my suspicions that this is not very close to the reality of the story and if it is, the Young has lived a romantic comedy cliche. Interesting.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is the story of Sidney Young (Simon Pegg), publisher of a small celebrity rag in the UK. The stories that he writes are all in a witty and sarcastic tone as he takes celebrity culture to task, as much as one can in his limited position. On top of his "unique" brand of humor, he is saddled with, shall we say, questionable social skills, evidenced by his attempts to get beyond the velvet ropes and into the celeb parties.

HowToLoseFriends_scene_04His fortunes take a turn when he gets a call from Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), publisher of Sharps magazine, and Young's personal hero. Sidney drops his magazine and flies across the pond, filled with ambition, believing that he has "arrived." He continues his boorish ways and in doing so does exactly what the title says. His boss barely tolerates him, he alienates the publicists whose stars he is writing about, and there is only one person who even comes close to tolerating him, Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst), but he barely notices half the time due to his fixation on up and coming starlet Sophie Maes (Megan Fox).

Now, I am sure you can tell exactly how this is going to go and you would be right. The plot is set up as your traditional romantic comedy, nothing new, but it is a good movie and well worth your time. Why? It is because of the supporting material. This movie is all about the window dressing and it is when the film steps away from the romantic thread that it fires on all cylinders.

The screenplay, from Peter Straughan, takes aim at celebrity culture and takes it down a peg or to. It seeks to point out the problems with the culture and the way it is celebrated. The story looks at the fine line that is drawn between the critic and howtolosefriends3his/her subject. How far will you go to get the story? Beyond that, if you cannot get in print, how far will you go to get printed? The answer is pretty simple for Sidney. Well, it is simple until his faith is shattered, completely changing his priorities and what he believes he needs to do.

I think it is the moment he lost his faith that my liking of this film was sealed. It is a subtle, blink and you miss it moment that has a profound effect on Sidney Young. To this point the screenplay was clever and better than I was expecting, so I was well on my way to liking it, but then this happens and I was completely sold. I so want to tell you what it is, but I have to bite my tongue and let you see it for yourself.

Simon Pegg is also a bonus, although his name recognition probably hurt the film in the long run, much like Ricky Gervais and Ghost Town. While both men are funny and good at what they do, American audiences are not as familiar with them, although you would think Pegg would be a little further up the ladder having the cult success of Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Whatever the case, it does not change the fact that he is a funny guy and has this ability to be completely serious while being in these ridiculous situations. The man is a breath of fresh air and I hope he gets more opportunities (well, he is in the new Star Trek film).

HowToLoseFriends_scene_06The rest of the cast is fine as well. Kirsten Dunst brings a likable presence to the screen, once separated from Spider-Man's MJ performance. Megan Fox does a fine job as the self-involved starlet, particularly in the spoof trailer in the film, she is also blessed with the absolute best line in the movie, it will leave you in stitches. The supporting cast is rounded out by Jeff Bridges and Gillian Anderson, with Anderson being more entertaining in limited screen time here than she was in the recent X-Files film.

Director Robert B. Weide makes his big screen debut in fine fashion, coming from his successful run on Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. I cannot say his style is distinctive, but it does not detract from the experience. The Hollywood skewering seems to fit right in with the Curb material.

Bottomline. Much better than I was expecting; although I do find it humorous that a film that targets Hollywood and celebrity, it easily slips into the romantic cliches of the genre. Or was that meant to be ironic? In any case, the movie is quite smart, funny, and well worth checking out if you have the opportunity.



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