How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is based on the memoirs of Toby Young, a British writer who traded on some notoriety as an enfant terrible in his native England and went on to become a contributor at Vanity Fair, where he clashed famously with editor Graydon Carter. If we are to believe the film, Young's life and career were a mediocre slapstick comedy, with a touch of lightweight romance thrown in. I suspect the truth is lot more complicated and interesting than this.
The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Or the guilty. I'm not sure which. Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) plays Sidney Young, a rabble-rouser who dreams of coming to America and entering the stratosphere of the very rich, the very famous, or the very both. He gets a basement level job at Sharps Magazine, run by the legendarily picky Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges). Harding provides Sidney with a peek into high society by introducing him to a powerful entertainment agent (Gillian Anderson) and the sultry young starlet she represents, Sophie Maes (Megan Fox). Sidney not only wants to hobnob with these folks, but he also makes it his personal mission to bed Sophie.
There's just one problem: Sidney's desire to climb the social ladder clashes with his abrasive personality. He needs to kiss a lot of asses to get where he wants, but ass-kissing is not exactly in his repertoire. Everyone finds him obnoxious, perhaps none more than his co-worker Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst). Sidney has to learn to play the game before managing to completely offend everyone around him.
How to Lose Friends & Alienate People had the potential to be a very good story of ruthless upward mobility. The idea of a raucous young Brit coming to the States and having to learn how to suck up to get ahead is full of possibilities. And let's face it, class divisions are great fodder for humor. With the talented Simon Pegg in the central role, it's not hard to see what might have been. Too bad, then, that we can't share in the contempt all the other characters have for Sidney. In spite of some boorish behavior, the movie clearly wants us to like him. Big mistake. For the premise to work, we should find him almost (but not quite) as insufferable as everyone else. Because if we like him, then we don't understand why those around him do not. Given the film's title and general premise, we should be on the side of Everyone Else. This ought to be a story about a guy who is so self-centered that he inspires contempt among everyone whose atmosphere he enters, not a story of a basically decent guy who manages to annoy the rich and famous.
One has to wonder why director Robert B. Weide ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") chose to artificially pump up the comedy rather than find it naturally in the situations. I bet this screenplay looked amazing on paper. While it has its fair share of outrageous moments, there's something appealingly dark at the center. Young's story demands to be told in the blackly funny way that, say, Little Miss Sunshine told its tale. In other words, the humor needed to be sly, focusing on the characters and hiding its message beneath a layer of cynicism. Instead, Weide plays everything to the hilt - like a comic telling jokes through a bullhorn - and encourages Pegg to mug at the camera and flail about wildly. This approach seems counterproductive to the ideas in the script, which need less broadness and more deviousness.
Consider the scene in which Sidney is entrusted to care for Sophie's beloved Chihuahua, with disastrous results. What a horrible situation for any guy: you've just maimed the pet of the woman you're desperately trying to have sex with. Playing that moment straight would be funny as is, yet the director has Pegg doing pratfalls around the room before capping the scene with a coda that would be clever if it didn't have neon arrows pointing directly to the joke.
I wish we knew a lot more about Sidney Young, like what drives him to be obnoxious, or why he so desperately longs to rub elbows with the social elite. Instead of addressing those things, the second half of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People turns into a clichéd romance, with Sidney slowly developing feelings for Alison, who is dating - wait for it! - a less-than-admirable jerk. I didn’t care about this. I wanted to see the writer offending the glitterati and then trying to keep his dreams from going down the toilet. What we get is a highly predictable series of scenes in which he and Alison gradually acknowledge that their bickering has been masking a deep attraction. If we've seen this once, we've seen it a million times.
To be fair, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People has some definite laughs, a couple of them big. Pegg again proves himself an adept comic actor, even if made to go over-the-top. Jeff Bridges is hilarious as the cranky editor; every time he walks in frame, the movie springs to life. Megan Fox is…well, let's just say that she's appropriately cast a sultry starlet. Kirsten Dunst, on the other hand, is miscast, yet still as likeable as always.
It's not the actors' fault. They do what they can. It's the approach that's off base. How to Lose Friends & Alienate People should be dark, mean, and nasty - in a good comedic way. It most definitely should not be a goofy, happy romp. The main character is ostensibly a creep who wants to "make it" so that he can stroke his own ego and indiscriminately bed women. He doesn't deserve the goofy-happy thing.
( out of four)
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is rated R for language, some graphic nudity and brief drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.
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