Below Radar: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Posted on 04 March 2009 by HansKlopek

What a shame that this gem opened this past fall with little remark and is now toiling away on video store shelves. It is a wonderful example of a bad formula being done extremely well.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is, at first glance, an Adam Sandler comedy; an unapologetically irreverent slob goes through a rags to riches scenario only to find his only redeeming qualities to be that he is both unapologetic and irreverent. This scenario has been played out a gazillion times; all you need is a different immediate setting and (sometimes) a new lead actor to stand in as the schmuck.

simon-and-kirstenHow to Lose Friends and Alienate People has Simon Pegg as the schmuck, and I must say it is amazing how much the right lead actor can lift a stale set-up. I’m sure most audiences will be familiar with Pegg’s face (though maybe not his name) from the brilliant British comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and possibly before that on the BBC comedy series Spaced. I’m a monstrous fan of all three, so I’m biased, but Pegg is so well chosen in the role of Sidney Young, a crass, unmannered English journalist brought stateside to cover New York celeb culture, that the film becomes better than it has any right to be as a result.

As the film opens, Young is fighting to stave off bankruptcy and save his fledging London publication, The Postmodern Review. He needs a celebrity scoop to keep the paper rolling. He camps out on the red carpet at the British Academy Awards with a pig, hoping to convince the doorman that it played Babe so he can be let in. A call comes from Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), editor of the powerful Sharps Magazine in New York. Young thinks he’s going to be sued for a licensing violation, but Harding offers the Brit a job and Young heads for New York instead.

Once stateside, Young proves why a title could not be more appropriately chosen. All different kinds of innappropriate, he makes foul jokes at office meetings, pitches silly story ideas, orders a stripper for a co-worker on Bring Your Daughters to Work Day, sneezes food on the back of an important client, and seems to think that, when interviewing a famous director, “are you gay?” and “are you Jewish?” qualify as an appropriate line of questioning.

Another actor would know that this was disgusting behavior and revel in it, but Pegg’s saving grace is to be able to play an oaf without seeming to know he is one. Young sees his behavior as a breath of fresh air for stuffy entertainment journalism, and indeed, he has scruples beyond that of his cohorts–he is asked to do a potential cover profile by a powerful publicist (Gillian Anderson), but balks when he finds out that she wants copy approval. He wants to take dead aim at what he sees as empty headed celebrities, but Harding tells him he’s a fool–the rag sells better when the stories are complimentary. Bridges plays Harding as such a grumpy bastard that it is hard to imagine him bringing Young from England, let alone keeping him after his many mistakes, but no matter, he stays because the story needs him to.

Young, of course, develops a love interest: Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst), another reporter in his department who mustsimon-and-megan find him disgusting for most of the story and then gradually relent. Young ollies back and forth between Alison and the star of the moment, Sophie (Megan Fox), a woman so enamoring that Young vows he will have sex with her, and doesn’t seem to think things out much farther than that. Alison is also having an affair with Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston), a powerful editor at the magazine and one of those high society men that swears he will never leave his wife no matter how much he hates her.

This scenario does make for a lot of fencing between the lovers–there is even the clunker of a scene where Alison goes to see Young at his apartment and a beautiful, half-naked woman walks into the scene just as they are about to connect. Even though I usually hate these scenarios, they worked for me here. As is usually the case, it is because of the actors; Pegg’s zany comic energy inspires a liveliness in Dunst that I don’t think I’ve seen before. There is also something genuinely sweet about their chemistry; I especially like the moment where Pegg buys her the soundtrack to La Dolce Vita, her favorite film, on vinyl and when she tells him she doesn’t have a turntable, suggests that she come round his place when she wants to listen. I’m generally not a sucker for modern day romantic comedies, but if I like the characters enough, I will watch them go through any contrived, hackneyed story device on the road to getting together. Pegg and Dunst are that type of screen couple.

I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would. Most of it is owed simply to Pegg being the right actor to carry it; some people like to say, sometimes irresponsibly, that casting is 90 percent of a director’s job. Though I usually disagree with that statement, I think the wrong actor as the lead in this movie would have meant a bad film. With Pegg though, Robert Weide, the director, found someone who could play a jackass but could also be endearing as one. Few actors can be disgusting and keep you with them at the same time. Pegg is one of them, and I think he is going to be around for a long time.

If you are interesting in checking out some other stuff in Pegg’s career, I would suggest the not-oft-seen Spaced. Check it out here.                           

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