A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, R, 109 mins.

Sidney: Simon Pegg / Sophie: Megan Fox / Clayton: Jeff Bridges / Alison: Kirsten Dunst

Directed by Robert B. Weide / Written by Peter Straughan

HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE.  Hmmm...I like that title: it's so superbly lyrical and caustic.   

It’s one of those movies that’s like a Swiss Army knife: It’s a side-splitting comedy of manners (or, ill-manners, in its case), a light romantic comedy, a psuedo-biopic, a commentary on shaky office politics, and a scathing and pointed satire on celebrity excess and their dicey relationship with unscrupulous, ass kissing journalists.  It works better on some levels over others, but HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS never strays away from being an often nail-biting exercise in social humiliation.  This is greatly assisted by the perfect casting of Simon Pegg as the lead character, who – like fellow UK import Ricky Gervais – is able to play categorically intolerable simpletons with oafish and obnoxious manners to likeable effect - he's the kind of riotous performer that'll make you simultaneously cringe and laugh as a result of his character's stunning lack of delicacy and timing.

In the film Pegg plays Sidney Young, one of those semi-innocent bumbling doofuses that cavorts around by saying and doing things inadvertently in dubiously poor taste without actually realizing, at first, just how wrong they are.  He works for one of those very low rent British publications that exist primarily to eviscerate celebrities of all kinds.  An early scene in the film shows how tirelessly he tries to crash huge and lavish black tie gala of A-list powerhouses of the movie industry.  He actually manages to get into posh gathering after the British Academy Awards with a rather large pig (don’t ask).  After it seems like his feeble cover is blown, Sidney tries to make a run for it…but is put in a vise-like headlock by a rather annoyed Clint Eastwood.  The next day Sydney shamefully pastes it as his magazine's 'Page 1" story of the day and uses it in even feebler attempts to pick up women.

These antics catch the eye and odd curiosity of a famous and powerful New York magazine editor named Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges, fiercely playing introverted menace and stern intimidation).  Clayton runs Sharps Magazine, but he too was once an aspiring writer like Sidney that shared his disdain for the unrealistic materialistic extremes of movie stars.  However, this is not a free meal ticket for Sidney: Clayton goes out of his way to warn him that in order to have a successful and fruitful career at Sharps he must become a charming and winning presence not only in the office, but to the celebrities he will write about.  Unfortunately for Sidney, charisma, magnetism, and appeal are what he abundantly lacks.  Maybe this has something to do with the fact that – during his first day at the office – he wears a red shirt that says, “Young, dumb, and full of come.”

It gets worse.  Not only does the hopelessly insufferable Sidney fail to inspire confidence in his new boss, but he also alienates his immediate superior, Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston, playing slimy antagonists like this with a sneering, venomous ooze).  Lawrence is a pompous windbag, to be sure, but he has the advantage of essentially charming his way to the top, not to mention that he has the power to steal good ideas right from under Sidney’s grasp.  Sidney does not take it lying down, though, and enacts revenge on Lawrence one fateful day by hiring a hermaphroditic stripper to crash one of his staff meetings.  However, because Sidney has such abysmally bad tact and timing, he unwittingly gets the stripper to perform the very same morning that the office is having their “bring your wife and kids to work” day.

Things snowball even further for the unlucky loser.  One morning on an elevator he accidentally vomits up his lunch on the back of one of the magazine owner’s priceless jacket.  He also manages – in one of the film’s sidesplitting moments – to accidentally crush a big celebrity’s cute little puppy after a severely botched game of fetch.  His attempts at interviewing subjects in the few assignments he’s initially given are head-scratching in their gracelessness  (at one point he asks an obviously gay performer if he is Jewish…or gay…or both).  The way he is able to distressingly implode any situation in a waves of self-destructive behavior are kind of inspired.  It takes a special kind of skill to be so calculatingly inept.

Alas, Sidney does has ambition.  He laments about his inability to rip into his celebrity targets like he could back home at his UK magazine.  He finally is given the green light to write a mercilessly scathing article on a new self-indulgent filmmaker, but just when things are going his way he is impeded by a power hungry publicist, Eleanor Johnson (the joyously against type Gillian Anderson, really sinking her teeth into this icy and snarky fiend).  She represents the filmmaker and wishes to expose him even further through Sharps Magazine, but with total control over content.  She also represents a new flavor of the week actress/super model named Sophie Maes (the eye-poppingly gorgeous and alluring Megan Fox, who played the sultriest grease monkey in movie history in TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE and more than earned her recent award in Maxim Magazine as “Earth’s Hottest Woman”).  Sophie is very high – okay…unfathomably high – on looks, but decidedly low on talent, but she does occupy the film’s funniest and sharpest bit in the form a TROPIC THUNDER-esque faux trailer within the film that has her playing, get this, an eroticized Mother Teresa. 

Needless to say, Sidney is instantly smitten with this sexy bombshell, but he also is taken in by one of his cute co-workers, Alison Olson (Kirsten Dunst, showing how decent she can be playing light comedy and underplayed sentiment when not saddled with damsel in distress roles in super hero films).  She, like most women, hates the overbearing Sidney at first, but she warms over to him as the two get cozier at the office.  However, two barriers halt any semblance of a serious fling between the two:  Firstly, she is having a scandalous affair with someone Sidney despises.  Secondly, Sidney is coerced into writing a hero worshipping fluff piece about the director he hates so that he can score a one on one with Sophie.  Amazingly, Sophie warms over to Sidney and actually makes him an offer he can’t bare to refuse: if she wins an acting award for her turn as Teresa, she will have sex with him.  However, Sidney begins to learns some harsh truths about the industry he is trying to break into that is deeply affecting his willingness to be a part of it in the long run.

Astoundingly, HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS is apparently based on the real life memoir of the same name by British writer Toby Young, who also tried to make it big in America by struggling through an arduous five-year stint with Vanity Fair.  During that time, he managed to estrange himself from just about every publicist around and essentially parted ways with the magazine for his inability to…well…do his job with even modest competency.  Obviously, elements of his real-life escapades have been soft-peddled for this fictional treatment, and names and other particulars have also been altered.

The film essentially “bases” itself on Young’s life, so I guess you can take that with a grain of salt.  One thing it does absolutely faultlessly is casting Pegg in the lead, and the actor is an downright surgeon when it comes to engaging in scene after scene where he allows himself to look like a jackass and fool.  Perhaps this is a market that only British performers have cornered so securely (just look at Ricky Gervais’ uproarious turn playing a sanctimonious a-hole with predilections to humiliating himself to affable levels in the recent GHOST TOWN).  Pegg’s Young is socially stunted and certainly lacks poise and discretion, but he has a heart and is a man of principle.  Pegg can play simpletons and clumsy goofballs to perfection, but one surprise in the film is how he also manages to find a tender conviction with Sidney.  He’s the kind of the guy that could make you feel validated about your life and lend an empathetic ear…but he also could simultaneously be setting your car on fire in the process.

The rest of the cast is strong too.  I especially liked Gillian Anderson’s turn as a ruthless and acid-tongued publicist (her long association with X-FILES has overshadowed how good of an actress she is), and Kirsten Dunst slowly and securely strips down layer upon layer of her character’s fragile emotional state to the point where she becomes more than just a stale love interest in the film.  Megan Fox more than facilitates the film’s need for opulent eye candy (and how!), and Danny Huston can play two-faced jerks as well as anyone.  Finally, there’s Jeff Bridges, playing the THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA-Merryl Streep role, and he is a grim, fairly frightening, authoritative, and tough talking hoot in the film.    I appreciated how he never lets his editor character flounder into broad stereotype, and some of his choices show how discerning an actor he is: just look at one key moment near the end where he plays a sly laugh just right.

HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE gets a bit too cuddly with its romantic subplots at times (far too frequently, it diverges from it and loses focus, not to mention that one can see the film through to its logical conclusion).  Plus, there is evidence that the film seems to grapple with whether it wants to secure itself in broad slapstick, genuinely scathing satire that lambastes the media and celebrity conceit, or a sweet and endearing romantic comedy.  However, the film is not too much of a jumbled mess to not value, and Pegg’s silly, blundering, and ill-timed antics are a giddy scream at times.  The film does a moderately competent job eviscerating movie star and magazine culture, even if its bite is not as rancorous as it should be.  If anything, HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE nevertheless manages to sustain itself by being frequently hilarious when it needs to be, even if its divergent elements and tones can't seem to fluently coexist together. 

And as for Megan Fox’s take on Mother Teresa?  She definitely puts a new spin on the term “saint.”  

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