Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 01, 2008

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People
Starring Simon Pegg and Kirsten Dunst. Directed by Robert B. Weide. Written by Peter Straughan, based on Toby Young’s memoir. Rated R.
Young and Famous

Sharp media satire, charming romance, and Simon Pegg light up this comedy.


If Michael Cera is an unlikely romantic lead (see above review), the same goes for Simon Pegg. Just like us North Americans, the British also have talented, charismatic comic actors who don’t look like Hugh Grant or Jude Law. That’s why American audiences have had the pleasure of recently seeing Steve Coogan in Hamlet 2 and Ricky Gervais in Ghost Town. Now Pegg stars in How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, which is the best comedy of the three by a fair distance. The film’s based on a memoir by Toby Young, a British journalist who spent two mistake-filled years in the 1990s working for Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair, then wrote a name-dropping book that nevertheless dished good dirt on the inner workings of big media. With his receding hairline and beady eyes, the 38-year-old Pegg is physically suited to play a middle-aged hack, yet the gleam of intelligence and comic anarchy that’s always in those eyes tips us off that he’s more than just a hack.
The movie changes everyone’s names and creates a fictional alter ego to Toby Young named Sidney Young, who starts out running his own U.K.-based publication that lampoons celebrities and the media outlets that create celebrity culture. His work catches the eye of media baron Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), who hires him to relocate to New York and write for one of those outlets, a glossy upscale fashion-and-culture mag called Sharps. In an office where everybody’s wearing designer labels, Sidney proudly shows up on his first day to work in jeans and a red t-shirt that reads “Young, Dumb, and Full of Come.”
He thinks he’s going to shake up this boring, stuffy magazine, but the movie gives both him and us an education in how these corporate publications work. Director Robert B. Weide (a TV guy making his first movie) and screenwriter Peter Straughan give us a feel for the up-and-down nature of journalistic careers, the less glamorous aspects of red-carpet events, and the back-scratching deals for access that are cut with stars’ managers. (Gillian Anderson will chill you to your soul as a cobra-like high-powered publicist.) We see Sidney’s disastrous, bumbling interview with a fey actor — modeled on Toby Young’s run-in with Nathan Lane — and see him forced to suck up to a pretentious pissant of a hipster filmmaker (Max Minghella). Particularly good are the impeccably played scenes between Pegg and Bridges, in which Harding gradually makes Sidney understand that his newfound success means changing his style: “You wrote all those snarky pieces about celebrities because you never got invited to the cool parties. But now you’re at the party. So quit bitching.”
Clueless and shamelessly on the make, Sidney’s character is softened by his realistically strained relationship with his philosophy-professor dad (Bill Paterson) and his willingness to own up to his mistakes (“I was just going through your personal possessions”). This helps explain why his co-worker, Alison (Kirsten Dunst), overcomes her initial loathing of him to steer him through the choppy office politics at Sharps and eventually fall for him. This romance works because the two actors trade quips with such ease and confidence and also because Dunst is unexpectedly good in the role of a smart wallflower who keeps her head down and grinds away at her desk and who’s easily outshone when she’s around a movie star. Her tensile performance is lightened by one spectacular sequence in which Alison ditches the married guy she’s been sleeping with and then gets very drunk at a party. In more ways than just looks, Alison should be out of Sidney’s league, yet Pegg and Dunst make them seem well-matched. The concluding sequence between them at a screening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is downright dreamy.
The movie’s one big flaw is Sidney’s infatuation with Sophie (Megan Fox), a Hollywood starlet whose career is going supernova. Nothing explains why this vapid and not particularly talented actress might attract him. Fox is superfine and manages reasonably well with Sophie’s monologue about how surreal her sudden fame is, but the character’s still a cipher. This subplot is good for one thing, though: We get to see a hilarious, Tropic Thunder-worthy fake trailer for Sophie’s movie in which she portrays the young Mother Teresa.
That brings me to something I almost overlooked: How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is terribly funny. The slapstick ranges from delicate (Sidney’s attempts to avoid Harding’s wife, who wanders the halls of Sharps in a medicated fog) to medium (Sidney dancing lewdly in a nightclub for the benefit of some mightily unimpressed women) to way raunchy (Sidney arranging for a hated colleague to get a lapdance from a she-male stripper), and it all helps open this film up to moviegoers with no interest in celebrity culture. A fizzy and keen-eyed workplace comedy with an impish sense of humor, this movie comes off like The Devil Wears Prada from a straight guy’s point of view, and that’s a pretty good thing.

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