Thursday, October 2, 2008

Movie Review: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Grade: C+

Toby Young's memoir, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, was a satire of the New York magazine industry. In describing his years as a Brit working at Vanity Fair, Young showed all of the absurdities of our celebrity culture while also reveling in it. The continued offenses he caused to his coworkers were often due to cluelessness, but they also showed the ridiculousness of a celebrity magazine taking itself so seriously.

In the movie version, which comes out this Friday, the names have changed (Toby to Sidney, Vanity Fair to Sharps Magazine), but that's only the beginning of what gets lost in adaptation. Rather than seeing the story as a source of satire, the writer seemed to see the title as a source of broad physical comedy. Thankfully, most of the movie's worst offenses are in the trailers, including a bit with a dog straight out of There's Something About Mary. But it is a shame that a story full of Office-style uncomfortableness relies so heavily on falls and goofy dancing. Given that the director, Robert Weide, comes from Curb Your Enthusiasm, it's surprising he falls back on such easy laughs.

With Sidney more of a walking ball of chaos than a fish out of water, there's little room left over for mocking the culture he's desperate to get into. The targets the movie does pick are certainly easy enough. There's the young new hotshot director, who we're supposed to hate because he wears sunglasses, and the up-and-coming bimbo starlet who won't go anywhere without her dog. And publicists are just evil creatures out to destroy a free press, never mind that in real life they also snuck Toby into many celebrity-filled events.

But it's the kind of movie that works best in extremes, starting with Simon Pegg as Sidney. While he's always been dependable in his past movies, here his broad take feels more Mr. Bean than Shaun of the Dead. He's always on top volume and displays far more silly dancing than wit. Jeff Bridges, as the Graydon Carter stand-in, is amusing but gets overshadowed by his hair. Kirsten Dunst can't spice up a boring character and Megan Fox's starlet is more strange than funny. So the real scenestealer is Gillian Anderson, who I had trouble recognizing as the publicist. She definitely shows she's ready for life after Scully, and in something better than this.

By the end, the movie has given up the satire and the humiliation to settle for being another lame romantic comedy, filled with all the standard tropes. But it never really aspired to more than getting a few laughs. There's enough gags in here that some of them are bound to work, so I can't say I didn't laugh. But even if it is watchable enough, it's also perfectly happy to settle for mediocrity.

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