The Good: Funny, Decent performances
The Bad: Light on character, Incredibly predictable
The Basics: Fun and funny, but not in any memorable or enduring ways, How To Lose Friends And Alienate People is worth one viewing, if nothing else.
Reviewing movies has become a genuine thrill for me lately. It is fun to get into screenings and tonight was the first time the "and guest" part of my screening pass was actually utilized. It's also the first night I was not seated next to a pair of giggling sophomores. It was a treat for me to be able to take my friend to see How To Lose Friends And Alienate People; she's a big fan of Simon Pegg. I thought I was a Simon Pegg virgin, but then I realized he was in Mission: Impossible III (reviewed here!), though his performance made absolutely no impression on me.
When the film was over, my friend informed me that I might like some of Pegg's works that he has written as well as performed in, as they utilize his talents better than How To Lose Friends And Alienate People. I have to take her word for it, though I think I would like to see Pegg in other movies, as this one was a remarkably average comedy. It wasn't great, it wasn't bad; I laughed. It killed an evening. And so it goes. In virtually every way, How To Lose Friends And Alienate People is an average film.
Sidney Young is a journalist who has never been on the a-list. In Britain, he is more or less despised while writing and editing a small magazine (The Post-Modern Review). After attempting to sneak into the BAFTAs with his pet pig (you know, the pig from Babe 3), he manages to crash an afterparty where he is chatting up Thandie Newton when his pig gets out and causes mayhem. This, however, brings him to the attention of U.S. publisher Clayton Harding, who was once a satirist and now owns some of the most successful magazines in the U.S. Clayton hires Sidney and the young Brit comes to the Big Apple to make his start.
Under the editors Lawrence Maddox and Alison Olsen, Sidney becomes familiar with the local up and coming talent, whom he is discouraged from speaking to while working on the "I Spy" desk. After meeting his idol, an aging actress named Rachel Petkoff - who is rejected for a feature in the magazine by Maddox - Sidney becomes infatuated with up-and-coming actress Sophie Maes. Sophie and the arrogant new director Vincent Lepak are both clients of Eleanor Johnson, so Sidney works to get on her good side. In the process, he and Alison discover they have more in common than they initially thought, Sidney inadvertently kills Sophie's dog and Sidney gets virtually everyone around him to despise him.
Actually, the title of the film, How To Lose Friends And Alienate People is something of a misnomer: Sidney starts the film as a man with no real friends and he simply continues wandering through his professional life trying to be edgy. Sidney states throughout that he does not want to be one of the a-list, he does not want to be one of the people behind the velvet rope and so when he encounters Vincent, his instinct is to try to take the young new director down a few pegs because Vincent has not accomplished anything, yet is treated like he owns the world. That instinct makes for an interesting character, but Sidney is surrounded by terribly serious americans who all take their jobs seriously and gawk over the stars.
The comedy in How To Lose Friends And Alienate People tends to come in the form, largely, of physical comedy. Things like Sophie wading through a pool to get through a crowd leave Sidney gaping. There are tried and true physical comedy moments, like Sidney dancing and his weird gyrations virtually clearing the dance floor off, Sidney and his landlady checking out the transsexual Sidney unwittingly brought home his first night in New York City with the classic head tilt, and quite a bit of sloppy eating gags. How To Lose Friends And Alienate People does not claim to be highbrow, but it strives for fun. The thing is, as far as the physical comedy goes, much of this movie contains Simon Pegg impersonating Rowan Atkinson. The body flailings, the mouth screw ups; these are hardly unique to Atkinson. However, the way Atkinson performs seems to be emulated by Pegg in many of the scenes that he is forced to carry with limited dialogue.
Largely, the movie succeeds on the level of fun, because there is not much to it that is substantial or surprising or new. From the moment Alison Olsen - who Sidney meets the night before he takes his job at the magazine at a bar - turns up at the magazine, the film becomes a fairly predictable sequence of events whereby Sidney strives to have sex with Sophie before Maddox does, while all the while developing a much more substantive friendship with Alison. As a result, How To Lose Friends And Alienate People is pretty much the intersection between the obvious fish-out-of-water comedy and the most predictable romantic comedy.
There are, however, two great character moments in the movie that make it worth recommending. The first is that Sidney is confronted with Rachel Petkoff, a star he truly is struck by. First, this provides Sidney with a moment that allows writers Toby Young (who wrote the book this movie was based upon, which I have not read) and Peter Straughan (the screen writer) to make a comment on how women are treated in Hollywood (or New York City). Age is not revered in the U.S. and Sidney's gushing over Petkoff makes for an enjoyable moment that says much about his character and about U.S. celebrity society. This moment also offers the potential for a real twist in the movie, which would have been for Sidney to pursue something with Petkoff. It is a shame the film chooses that moment to introduce Sophie in a big wet way that makes Sidney absolutely gush like everyone else at the party. It is a shame that potential was so quickly squelched.
The other character element for Sidney that makes How To Lose Friends And Alienate People worth watching is that he is estranged from his father. This reveals several secrets of his past that I shall not ruin, but do make him a much more interesting character. In fact, the only problem with these character revelations that come out from the estrangement of Sidney and his father is that once they are out, Sidney begins to act a different way. I resist the idea that once people are revealed to be smart, they suddenly act that way if they have been hiding it so effectively so long.
Outside Sidney, though, none of the characters are particularly likable. Clayton only is humanized in a few lucid scenes where he makes decisions based upon nostalgia, like hiring Sidney and sending Sidney to write a scathing article on Vincent. Maddox is cheating on his wife and Alison falls into the young stereotype of mid-twentysomething who is still solving her problems with alcohol. Similarly, Sophie is written like a bad cliche of the sudden starlet and when her dog Cuba disappears from the movie, it is not a moment too soon.
How To Lose Friends And Alienate People is undeniably well-cast. Jeff Bridges and Gillian Anderson return to the big screen after their summer blockbusters for roles that are not their greatest, but utilize them well enough to make the viewer psyched to see them when they show up on screen. This was the first movie I had seen Megan Fox in, but she was convincing as the absent-minded and vacuous sudden starlet. Rather problematically, her character appears wearing fur near the end of the film when she was characterized as a vegetarian who didn't wear anything made of animal, but this cannot be held against Fox.
Moments before How To Lose Friends And Alienate People began, my friend who accompanied me informed me that Kirsten Dunst was in the film and my heart sank some. For those who do not follow my reviews, I spent some time last year trying to figure out why Kirsten Dunst was considered a decent actress and I stopped when I finally saw Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (reviewed here!) and Dunst was decent in it. In this, it is tough to evaluate her work; her character is such a bland archetype that there is not much to work with. That said, she does not infuse any real zest into the character and is largely relegated to playing straightwoman to Pegg's absurd antics.
As for Simon Pegg, he is decent as Sidney, but he does not light the world on fire. He is a good physical comedian, though his required flailings about in How To Lose Friends And Alienate People do seem awfully familiar as a fan of Rowan Atkinson. Still, the verbal comedy he is given is funny and he pulls off the role of Sidney well enough that I am curious to see him in other things.
Who will enjoy How To Lose Friends And Alienate People? Anyone looking for lighter fare. This is a screwball comedy for adults and it fits the bill for that. My "recommend" is for viewing, not for buying on DVD. It's enjoyable, but it hardly seems like it would be an essential piece for the library of fans of any of the performers involved.
For other works with Megan Fox, check out my reviews of:
Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen
For other film reviews, check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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