HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE
Wearing, and riding on, The Devil Wears Prada's coattails, this roman à feet-of-clay based on Toby Young's book about his ill-fated stint at Vanity Fair magazine frequently references La Dolce Vita (1960). That was a mistake. The Fellini classic about an existentially jaded paparazzo—the film that in fact led to the term "paparazzi"—is so much more elegant, knowing, entertaining and even, nearly 50 years later, trenchant than this toss-off that How to Lose Friends & Alienate People can only suffer in comparison. Its audience, on the other hand, simply suffers.
With more production companies and executive producers than there are laughs in the entire picture, the movie veers about two-thirds through from being a not nearly barbed enough comedy-of-embarrassment to a saccharine rom-com involving Simon Pegg's slightly renamed Stanley Young and Kirsten Dunst's Alison Olsen, a society-gossip staffer at the fictitious Sharps magazine. Mostly told in flashback by Brit ex-pat Young, the movie initially spends much of its time trying to draw comedy from his inappropriate behavior, Young in his own country being something of a middle-class Larry David. He becomes successful and sympathetic after agreeing to sell out and let a star publicist (Gillian Anderson) vet his articles about her clients—a journalistic depth-charge long leveled at Vanity Fair—and the shift in tone is so jarring, it's like Mr. Bean suddenly doing Hamlet.
Some of the fictional Young's transgressions—wearing an obscene t-shirt to meet his new boss, the Graydon Carter manqué Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), or sending a colleague a strippergram on Take Our Daughters to Work Day—come from the book and presumably real life. The office romance is fictional—Young's future wife, Caroline Bondy, was a law-office intern when they met in 1997—but otherwise, the film strives for a never quite convincing backstage feel with picturesque New York City locales and cameos by Thandie Newton and, in a wordless and uncredited role as a partygoer, Brian Austin Green.
Dunst, who after a remarkably promising early career seems more and more one-note in her choice of roles, gives little effort in trying to make something out of lines like "It's called being professional. You should try it sometime." The ever-amazing Anderson, conversely, takes what's written as an evil caricature and with just inflection and expression makes her loathsome über-flack an understandable if still contemptible human being. Miriam Margolyes scores as a gruffly motherly Polish landlady, as does Bill Paterson as Young's highly accomplished but loving and non-condescending father.
Undistinguished direction, cutesy and unoriginal scoring and wasted opportunities such as setups never followed by actual punch lines all work against a film that finds even the likeable Pegg wobbling between farcical and fleshed-out. A full-frontal moment with a transsexual's penis, and a gross-out line that follows it, only add to the train wreck.
One interesting side note: The fictional Young's late mother was a British actress whose films show up occasionally on TV. And in a clip from Now and Forever (1956), we see it's Janette Scott—now and forever immortalized in The Day of the Triffids (1962) and the subsequent line from The Rocky Horror Picture Show opening song: "And I really got hot / When I saw Janette Scott / Fight a triffid that spits poison and kills." If anyone has a triffid handy, point it toward this movie.
Portrait of a struggling, stubborn folksinger in 1961 New York is a Coen Brothers triumph, and one of the year’s best films. More »
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