Image Entertainment // 1989 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // January 24th, 2011
How are we getting on with the pimple cream?
After writing the screenplay for The Killing Fields, one of the saddest true stories ever committed to film, Bruce Robinson tried his hand at direction, but didn't stay on the path that got him nominated for an Oscar. His first film, Withnail and I, was a quirky and uncomfortable autobiography that has justifiably built a considerable cult following. His second feature was much stranger. A biting satire of consumerism, How To Get Ahead in Advertising is a more accomplished film with a broader story and moments that have me laughing my head off. After that he did Jennifer 8, of all films, and then very little. Whatever happened between then and now is of no matter; this is enduring stuff, just as hilarious today because what Robinson's skewering hasn't changed a bit.
Brilliant ad executive Dennis Dimbleby Bagley (Richard E. Grant, Spice World) has been having a rough go of it lately. He's been working on a campaign for a new boil medication, but his good life and great skin means he just can't relate to people with acne. As he tries to find a way to make pustules sexy, however, he starts to develop a boil of his own on his neck. It won't stop growing and, worse, has a voice. Bagley thought he was a cutthroat ad man, but when the boil starts to take over, he realizes he never knew the meaning of the term.
Aside from desperate advertising agency zealots, I don't see how somebody wouldn't like How To Get Ahead in Advertising. I love Withnail and I, but it's a very acerbic piece of work that is hard to get the average unsuspecting viewer to embrace. Not so with Robinson's follow up. Richard Grant is a jerk at its most charming as Bagley, who whines about his horrible industry, but lives a happy life inside of it. When he's finally had enough and decides to get out, it's not because of his spoken moral objections. No, he just can't figure out how to sell acne medicine and it frustrates him more than any problem ever has. Even when he quits, though, his body still has to solve the problem, so it takes over where his brain can't function.
The arrival of Bagley's second head is the most important of a number of absurd turns that make the movie so much fun. This isn't The Thing with Two Heads cheesiness; there's a war going on inside Bagley's psyche, and the winner is the side that can sell boil cream. It's a brilliant concept that lives up to its potential through an absolutely brilliant performance from Richard E. Grant. He's a jerk as Bagley proper, but he goes to a different level when the boil takes over the head. Grant plays both sides perfectly, displaying a dream level of smarm. He might be able to sell a bald man shampoo, and you have to admire him on that level, but he's a tough guy to like.
Good as the performance is, Grant's supporting cast acquits themselves very nicely. Rachel Ward (Against All Odds) is nearly as good as Grant in the role of Bagley's wife, who suddenly has to deal with two husbands, one incorrigible and the other worse. She may have the toughest part in the film trying to maintain her sanity and a functioning home while dealing with a lunatic raving about his talking boil. Also excellent, though in a very small role, is Richard Wilson (A Passage to India) playing Bagley's boss and mentor, John Bristol. He tells his charge how much he sees himself in Bagley, twenty years earlier, which makes you wonder if a similar issue overcame Bristol all those years ago that left him the calculating ad genius we see in the film. The tiny roles, nearly all insubstantial, are delightful across the board. In the balance of satire and farce, the performers hold the thing together very well.
While, overall, this is a more enjoyable film than Withnail and I, How To Get Ahead in Advertising is a less consistent film. It's funnier, and certainly more to my tastes, but the concept does drag a little bit by the end. As Bagley's rants get more outrageous, it can start to seem like more of the same. I love Grant's performance so much, though, that it doesn't matter much to me and it sets up for the final brilliant horseback rant.
How To Get Ahead in Advertising is an underrated classic, so I'm always happy to see another release, but there's no real point of this DVD. Now from Image Entertainment, this is the same disc as came out from MGM years ago which was itself inferior to Criterion's release a decade ago. Those are out of print, so if you want it, this is what you've got. I wish they'd done something with it, though. It's bare bones all the way, with a colorful but soft transfer and a solid mono audio track. If you didn't have it before, now's your chance, but there's no other reason to pick up this disc.
Even if there's no good reason for the existence of this disc, it's still a good opportunity to revisit a classic bit of satire, so I can't complain that much.
Review content copyright © 2011 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R