How To Lose Friends & Alienate People

cast: Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst, Jeff Bridges, Megan Fox, and Danny Huston

director: Robert B. Weide

110 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Paramount DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

How To Lose Friends & Alienate People is based on the memoir of the same name by Toby Young, a British journalist who landed a job on Vanity Fair, where he proceeded to… well, lose friends and alienate people. Not having read the book, nor knowing anything about Young’s career, I am not able to judge how far the film reflects reality; so I think it’s best to treat it as a work of fiction. For one thing, the movie is fictionalised anyway, with Toby Young becoming Sidney Young, and the magazine being titled ‘Sharps’; for another, there are all the times when you think, nothing like that could have happened in real life… could it?

At first sight, Sidney (played by Simon Pegg) would appear to have made it – we see him at the ‘Apollo film awards’, with his tux and expensive watch, where a beautiful actress has promised to let him have sex with her if she wins the award she’s been nominated for… and she does win. But then we go back in time, to Sidney’s life in London, where he edits the ‘Postmodern Review’ (whose office is in his front room) and is generally despised by the showbiz world. In the first of many memorable comic sequences, Sidney tries to get into the BAFTA Awards by escorting a pig (“It’s Babe!”); and, when that doesn’t work, he sneaks into an after-show party hosted by Clayton Harding, the editor of Sharps magazine – and he gets caught out there as well.

When, in due course, a call arrives from Harding (Jeff Bridges), Sidney goes straight on the defensive; but there’s no need, because Harding wants to offer him a job on Sharps – and we shift to the bright lights of New York, at which Sidney is gazing out of his cab window with a big grin on his face. But his illusions are soon shattered when, in a great moment, Sidney finds that he has left his flat above a London kebab shop for a New York apartment… above a kebab house – owned, to boot, by an old battleaxe, Mrs Kowalski (a hilarious performance by Miriam Margolyes).

Set to work on the ‘I Spy’ section of Sharps, under the editorship of the oily Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston), Sidney soon becomes disillusioned – this magazine may be run by Clayton Harding, but where is Sidney’s hero, the Harding of old who edited ‘Snipe’ magazine and had no truck with sucking up to celebrities? Harding’s response is, “You’re at the party now” – in other words, be grateful for your good fortune.

Not that Sidney has great fortune in some respects – just about his only colleague who’ll be halfway civil to him is Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst), and Sidney tries her patience often enough. But Sidney’s new life does have its perks, like getting to meet beautiful women, such as the gorgeous non-entity Sophie Maes (Megan Fox). And when clinging to his ideals doesn’t work out, Sidney throws himself into the glamorous lifestyle on offer, which will culminate in Sophie’s (for it is she) nomination for ‘best actress’. Ah, but is it really what Sidney wants?

The weakness of How To Lose Friends & Alienate People is that it fails to reconcile two contradictory impulses. The first of these impulses is to portray Sidney as a loser; he wanders from blunder to faux pas, saying the wrong thing and making a fool of himself – and why wouldn’t the movie focus on this, when it’s the source of so many laughs? But the second impulse is to join Sidney in criticising the celebrity machine; he’s not just rebelling for the sake of it – with the way some of the other characters behave, particularly Maddox, Sidney has a point. The trouble is that, by trying to do both of these things, the film dilutes the effect of both.

Sidney isn’t that much of a loser – he can be charming with people he likes and admires; and Simon Pegg’s screen persona is so naturally amiable that he doesn’t really convince as someone who would alienate others en masse – the way Sidney comes across, if he put his foot in it with you, you’d laugh it off, because it’s just him, and he’s a decent bloke underneath. On the other hand, the critique of celebrity is undermined because, not only is Sidney happy to accept the more pleasurable trappings of the world he professes to despise; the movie itself uses a structure straight out of the Hollywood storybook (after a disappointment, Sidney starts playing the Sharps game, has his doubts, and is rewarded for learning better) – and a few pratfalls that may be attempts to subvert the classic trajectory are not enough to prevent mixed messages about what the film thinks of show-business and celebrity journalism. In the end, the satire isn’t pointed enough, and the loser not un-likeable enough, leaving the movie occupying some awkward middle ground.

How To Lose Friends & Alienate Peopleis not without its (considerable) charms. The film may be little more than a string of jokes, but those jokes (both visual and verbal) are generally very funny indeed. Pegg may not make a great loser, but the very likeability I referred to earlier makes him extremely watchable all the same – actually, pretty much all the cast embody their roles well. This is not a bad film, not by any means; it just stops short of what it could be (and what I think it aims to be). Whatever it’s not, How To Lose Friends & Alienate People is a comedy with great laughs, and that surely can’t be a bad thing.

DVD bonus features: two director’s commentaries, one by Weide alone, one accompanied by Pegg (this seems rather excessive – even Weide begins his solo commentary by saying that anyone listening to both must have a lot of time on their hands); deleted scenes; gag reel; video diaries.