Entertainment journalists are very often the last line of defense between movies/movie stars and the general public. We work for the public and are available to disentangle cinematic takes on baseball, superheroes, various wars, Elizabethan times, romantic conquests, car chases, or what have you. But when the material is more or less about us, it's much harder to find some perspective. Based on a memoir by British journalist Toby Young, the very funny new film How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is tough going at first, but it ultimately avoids relieving itself where it eats. And it has an underlying sweetness that should appeal to a large cross section of movie people and people who like movies.
Simon Pegg stars as Sidney Young, an anarchic British journalist who runs his own tiny, gutsy rag, the Post Modern Review. He measures himself against the kinds of celebrities he can get close to, but also despises them and loves to poke holes in their images. When he runs a nasty story on a powerful New York publisher, he receives a phone call and a job offer. Soon he finds himself standing in the office of Sharps magazine and its editor-in-chief, Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges). Sidney idolizes Clayton for a more hardcore magazine he used to publish, and considers Sharps a sellout, but also loves the power and the paycheck it can bring. With his outsider attitude, he immediately begins screwing up and alienating all his co-workers, including powerful publicist ("I don't like that word") Eleanor Johnson (Gillian Anderson) and co-worker Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst). But he's so persistent (and they had such a good, solid "meet-cute") that Alison eventually tolerates him and then warms up to him.
Meanwhile, Sidney meets the dazzling new starlet Sophie Maes (Megan Fox) at a party and decides to try and sleep with her. (She makes a grand, publicity-rich entrance by wading through a swimming pool -- skimpy dress and all -- to get to the other side of the party.) But a sleazy junior editor, Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston), seems to have the jump on him. This is all beginning to sound familiar, and indeed How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is built on the bones of a very traditional romantic comedy; Sidney must eventually reject soulless fame, sex and riches and embrace true love. (Frankly, I kept rooting for him to keep the swank job!) He even has a highly symbolic ring given to him by his mother, a movie star of the past, that he barely knew. As a showbiz comedy, this stuff is nowhere near as sharp as Tropic Thunder.
Fortunately, screenwriter Peter Straughan and director Robert B. Weide (an Oscar nominee for the excellent documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth) build their individual scenes around dark, dry jokes and general anarchy. And it's enough to distract from the bigger, lazily predictable story arc. Pegg helps a great deal in this regard. He doesn't actually give a consistent performance, as he did so well in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but he's also not afraid of being "unlikeable." He lets the comedy get as darkly embarrassing as possible during each scene, and hang the consequences. Thus, his character is never actually redeemed, but rather his happy ending grows naturally out of his deliberately aggressive personality.
But the most interesting part of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is the way it explores the celebrity factor. In one scene, our characters even attend a "dead celebrity" party (you can have Megan Fox; I'll take Kirsten Dunst in a Louise Brooks wig!). Its biggest influence is Federico Fellini's 1960 La Dolce Vita, which it's brave enough to reference twice. In that film, Marcello Mastroianni plays a very similar celebrity journalist who manages to get close to a sexy star, although not close enough to touch her or discover who she really is. When Sidney asks Sophie in a private moment what it's like to be an incredibly huge star, she answers, "weird." That's precisely the same answer Fellini arrived at, albiet with quite a bit more poetry and grace.There are some uncomfortable questions involved here. Who and what are celebrities? Why do we want to either be one of them or get close to them? Why is that impossible? They bring us so much pleasure with their celluloid selves, but the real thing is often a disappointment. Rita Hayworth said much the same thing of her alter-ego Gilda, and Megan Fox does a remarkable job of selling the same image; her Sophie Maes is alluring and desirable, but also bossy, vacant and ultimately a closed-off shell. Yet, we continue to be fascinated. We want to be the special one to break the shell, to cross to the other side of the velvet rope. How to Lose Friends & Alienate People happily plays with these desires, and with their repercussions. And it decides that this side of the velvet rope is just fine, thank you very much, and in fact, watching La Dolce Vita is much better than living it.