How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for language, some graphic nudity, and brief drug material
Running time: 110 min.
Cast: Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst, Megan Fox, Jeff Bridges, Danny Huston, Gillian Anderson, Miriam Margolyes
Cameo: Thandie Newton, Daniel Craig, Brian Austin Green, Kate Winslet
Director: Robert B. Weide
Screenplay: Peter Straughan (based on the book by Toby Young)
Review published July 5, 2009
Almost unrecognizably based on the 2001 Toby Young memoir about his five-year stint working for Vanity Fair in New York since coming from England, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People feels more like a case of a good idea turned bland and formulaic once too much tweaking to the original story came about from people who felt it needed more traditional rom-com conventionality. The name of the magazine has been changed to Sharps Magazine, though the publication itself is of a similar type. The rest is pretty much made up, built on top of the main premise of Young's book.
The film starts with Simon Pegg (Run Fatboy Run, Hot Fuzz) playing edgy British tabloid writer Sidney Young, who catches the eye of Clayton Harding (Bridges, Iron Man), a big-wig editor of high society magazine, Sharps. He relocates to NYC to start his newer, better career, but finds it difficult to get along with his coworkers, as his sense of humor and belief in an alternate journalistic credo ruffles more than a few feathers in the company. One of those ruffled soon becomes his only friend, a struggling novelist named Alison (Dunst, Spider-Man 3). Alison might be the type of gal Sidney would go for, but all of his efforts are instead pushed to bedding the sexy starlet who his magazine is doing a piece on, Sophie Maes (Fox, Transformers). He soon begins to be conflicted between the girl he desires and the girl who is right for him, and just when he thinks the decision becomes clear, the option is no longer available. Things continue to not go so well, but Sidney is determined to make it without crashing and burning, but finds it difficult to do without selling out what he believes in.
I find it a bit ironic that a subplot of the film involving Alison's inability to find a way to finish the book she's struggling with would itself not have a clue, especially as it goes the sitcom route of ending the film on a cheap sight gag. Not that much that comes before would have indicated the movie would not go the easy route whenever possible, as whatever uniqueness and personality the story has going for it is lost once it was shoehorned into a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy/how to get ahead in business comedy plot. Most of the film centers around finding ways for Sidney to embarrass himself in front of others, and only one woman can see through the ineptitude to find there's more to him than just a bungling ignoramus. This is the formula that "Curb Your Enthusiasm" director Robert Weide, working from the script adaptation by Peter Straughan (Sixty Six, Mrs. Ratcliffe's Revolution), rides all the way up until the very last second.
The tone isn't dissimilar to another upscale magazine comedy, The Devil Wears Prada, although that film has one asset that this film clearly lacks, and that's putting together a cast that works. The cast is a good one, but most of the main players seem to be playing in different films. Pegg is playing his part as if he's in a broad farce, Kirsten Dunst as if she's in a Hollywood romance, Jeff Bridges as if he's in a drama, and Megan Fox as if she's in a dumb comedy. While they all do a fine job in each individual part, they don't seem to exist on the same plane even when they are in the same scene, which makes the film as a whole very awkward in execution.
Throughout you'll wonder why Sidney and Alison find each other worthy to be friends, given they seem so radically opposite to one another, and certainly feel like these are two who would never find immense attraction for one another in real life. You'll also wonder why Harding doesn't fire the seemingly talentless new writer any number of times, as he doesn't appear to be nearly as worth the trouble to relocate, much less put up with zero output and lots of detriment, as the story would suggest. While Megan Fox is definitely the kind of woman who could make smart men do some very dumb things for a chance to get her in the sack, the amount of attention her character pays to Sidney doesn't jibe, given his status, appearance and demeanor. He also appears to be so loutish, we question whether he is truly deserving of getting the good girl, and whether she deserves the tragedy of a potential mate so morally flawed. Then again, when we've already established she is an item with Lawrence Maddox (Huston, 30 Days of Night), the biggest jerk in the film; I guess her good-guy radar is permanently out of whack.
The tone is erratic, ranging from extremely silly comedy bits involving a she-male stripper or the cover-up of the death of a prized pet, to scenes of soul searching regarding the state of one's happiness in career and in love. The styles are often at odds with one another, as we can't care about these characters enough during the serious scenes because they are painted with such broad strokes early on, and then we can't laugh at their follies when we can't quite take the film as a pure enough comedy to earn laughs from silly slapstick.
How to Lose Friends & Alienate People labors to find a consistent tone, primarily because it feels like a manufactured comedy made by too many people meddling into the story, trying to touch as many bases as possible to please whatever audience is out there. It's a shame that those who worked on the adaptation didn't take the message regarding not selling out ones principles to please the higher ups weren't taken to heart, as trying to give audiences the kind of product they deserve ended up backfiring. Pegg fans will probably like this more than others, but even he doesn't have enough charisma to create romantic chemistry in a barely developed romance and laughs when the script is mostly devoid of genuine wit. Watch The Apartment if you want to see this material done right.
©2009 Vince Leo