MGM // 2008 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 17th, 2009
He's across the pond, and out of his depth.
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is a biopic about the life of Toby Young. In case you're not familiar with Young, I'll fill you in. For five years, Young was a writer and editor for Vanity Fair. During his tenure there, he insulted many of his co-workers, hired a stripper on "Bring your daughter to work day," and generally made everyone around him miserable. In short, Young (you guessed it) lost a lot of friends and alienated a lot of people. All of these events were unapologetically chronicled in Young's memoir, entitled (you guessed it again, you clever bugger) How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. For all of Young's considerable faults, it's hard not to admire the ferocious honesty Young demonstrates in his book.
The film is a little kinder to Young than the book was, largely because the role of Young is played by Simon Pegg, an actor who is rather difficult to dislike completely. This may also be due to the fact that some audience members might not actually sit through an entire movie about the real Young, because such a film would potentially lose and alienate audience members. Indeed, the making-of featurette included on this DVD explicitly states that Pegg was hired because he could find a way to make the character likable. That move provides a pleasant and reasonably entertaining viewing experience, but also left this viewer feeling just a bit short-changed.
For somewhat inexplicable reasons (perhaps because of the not-particularly-true nature of the film), Pegg's character goes by the name Sidney Young in this film. It's just as well, since Sidney isn't really very convincing as Toby. This "Sidney" fellow writes a very offensive article about the editor of a major magazine (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski). The magazine is not called Vanity Fair, but it is Vanity Fair, if you know what I mean. In a fit of inspiration (or perhaps insanity), Bridges hires Young. This move might seem unconvincing if the role of the editor weren't being played by Bridges, who has that gift of convincing us that anything he happens to be doing is the right thing to be doing. The editor's rationale: it takes one heck of a bold writer to publish such harsh material with such ruthless tenacity. Unfortunately yet predictably, Young turns out to be more trouble than he's worth. Insert assorted and occasionally amusing rude antics here.
Though Young may seem like a man who cares for naught but foolishness, deep down he yearns to write the sort of ruthless, honest, mean-spirited material he built his unsavory reputation on. Alas, it seems that not-Vanity Fair-magazine is more intent on praising celebrities than panning them. It seems that Young either isn't allowed to trash someone for fear of upsetting a powerful publicist (Gillian Anderson, The X-Files) or his articles aren't printed because the Bridge is unhappy with Young's sloppy writing. He's also being treated quite badly by his direct superior (Danny Huston, The Constant Gardener), who seems intent on preventing Sidney from accomplishing anything. These subplots also work towards attempting to make Sidney as sympathetic as possible by portraying him as the underdog: "The whole world is against him, the poor fellow." None of this can cover up the fact that Sidney Young had an opportunity to choose his own destiny, and he chose to become a giddy bull in a china shop.
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People also attempts to ingratiate itself to viewers by adding a romantic element. Initially, Sidney pines after his co-worker (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man). Dunst just so happens to be dating Huston, which creates a rather convienient bit of conflict between two all ready conflicted characters. Every so often, Sidney takes a break from his pining in order to engage in some all-out lust. He finds himself very aroused by a movie star (Megan Fox, Transformers) who will remain unattainable unless he writes a flattering puff piece about her. Fox plays a character without any discernible talent whatsoever, but she has a scene in a swimming pool that reminded me of what they used to say about Esther Williams: "Dry, she ain't much. Wet, she's a star!" The decision is not a particularly easy one for Sidney, as his raging libido, his love for Dunst and his warped "integrity" duke it out over the course of the film.
The film is probably most effective early on due to some genuinely witty dialogue and some very enjoyable performances. Though he may not be Toby Young, Pegg is entertaining in his self-absorbed role, and he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Danny Huston has never seemed more like his father than in this film (which should tell you everything you need to know about his character and his performance), and Jeff Bridges has a way of making even the most inconsequential scene memorable. Kirsten Dunst is much more interesting than usual, and Megan Fox shows a sense of comedic talent that she was not permitted to display in Transformers.
Sadly, the infectious appeal created by this talented cast fades all too quickly. Roughly halfway through the film, the exasperatingly obligatory journey towards redemption begins, and the film more or less dies. After the first 45 minutes or so, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People becomes quite predictable. The laughs appear less and less frequently, and the dramatic moments are a complete wash. When the final score is tallied up, we simply aren't given quite enough entertainment to make all that banal padding worthwhile.
To make matters worse, some of the comedic scenes here are obnoxiously broad and unfunny. One of these scenes involves a pig. Another one involves a puppy. Yet another involves a bag of cocaine. Each of these scenes feels like they belong in another movie, perhaps an R-rated version of College Road Trip. In many ways, the film reminded me of The Devil Wears Prada, another modestly entertaining film that spent far too much of its running time tossing out either poorly-conceived gags or unconvincing sermons.
As usual, the screener disc from Fox offers sub-par audio and video quality, so I cannot authoritatively comment on that aspect of the film. The DVD is blessed with two audio commentaries: one featuring director Robert B. Weide, and one featuring Weide and Simon Pegg. The former is a bit on the dry side, but it's easily the most informative of the two in terms of what went into making the film. The latter is much more laid-back and jokey, though rather less entertaining than some of the other audio commentaries I've heard Pegg offer on other films. He just doesn't seem quite as enthusiastic about this particular effort. The only other extra is an 18-minute making-of featurette, which is typically clip-heavy and full of back-slapping.
Truth be told, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People isn't a terribly bad film. The weak elements here just seem so disappointing because the film occasionally hints it could have been something smart and satisfying. If you watch the film you will find an assorted blend of small pleasure and big laughs, but there are more misses than hits, making it very difficult for me to recommend the film.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R