By some bizarre alchemy, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Toby Young’s 2001 acid-penned letter to New York media based on his experiences at Vanity Fair, has been translated to the screen as a Judd Apatow romantic comedy crossed with The Devil Wears Prada.
Completely fictionalizing Young’s memoir, How to Lose Friends now presents us with clueless journalist Sidney Young (Simon Pegg). Lured to New York from London by a call from the powerful Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges as the Graydon Carter manqué) to work at Sharps magazine (read: Vanity Fair), Sidney somehow bumbles his way to the top, while the movie juggles a disingenuous look at the way New York magazines are ruled by publicists with Sidney’s love life. The latter plot has been watered down from Young’s original coke-fueled encounters to consist of a bland triangle between the clueless, balding Sidney, the vacuous, gorgeous starlet Sophie whom he thinks he wants (an amazingly dull Megan Fox), and his no-nonsense co-worker Alison (Kirsten Dunst). What follows is almost two hours of paint-by-numbers screenwriting that ends, of course, on a high note.
Claiming that since the memoir is a series of loosely connected vignettes without anything binding them together (the same could be said of lives, and yet biopics get made), screenwriter Peter Straughan chooses to sand off the rough edges of Young’s helter-skelter life to transform it into a heartwarming tale of true love. And like all tales of true love, there must be villains blocking the hero’s path. Here, the villains are the strangely unintimidating Clayton and a sweet-and-sour publicist named Eleanor (Gillian Anderson), who is said to rule New York City. Boasting all the top talent in her stables, Eleanor also rules Sharps magazine itself, doing everything from rewriting copy about her clients to working in tandem with the art department to Photoshop them. By presenting one all-powerful PR agent, the movie somehow manages to give the impression that she’s an anomaly, someone who has let absolute power go to her head. When, in fact, any journalist could easily tick off a slew of different veiled threats from various PR companies. Eleanor isn’t the exception in publicity; in a world filled with puff pieces, she’s the rule.
Of course, to include the truth in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People would involve giving the story some teeth, which Straughan and director Robert Weide go out of their way to avoid. Ironic, as it turns out, since Sidney is constantly asking Clayton for permission to write a story with bite. To that end, Straughan turns Sidney into someone who isn’t a jerk so much as an idiot. So we’re treated to plenty of scenes from the book that transform Young’s British humor into flat-footed jokes that fall flat for Sidney, turning him into a buffoon instead of a self-saboteur.
But once we’ve settled down into Devil Wears Prada territory, watching a journalist working at a magazine he doesn’t quite fit in at, the whole magazine plot is dropped in favor of focusing on Sidney’s romantic woes. But coming off as a Pia Zadora type-complete with a shady award-Fox’s Sophie exhibits all the charm and personality of a two-dimensional print ad. Watching Sidney fawn over her in a frat-boy-dripping-saliva way just makes him even more boringly typical than he was already. We like Sidney because of Pegg, but even Pegg’s immense personal charm isn’t enough to mask just how thickheaded Sidney is. And Toby Young (who quotes de Tocqueville and Ben Hecht with annoying frequency in his memoir) is anything but stupid.
In fact, he’s gloriously destructive. In a new postscript included in the movie tie-in edition of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Young (who is a co-producer of the film) candidly discusses his fears about the direction in which Weide was taking the movie, thus displaying the kind of kamikaze bravado that Weide’s movie could have used more of.
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
Directed by Robert Weide, Running Time: 110 min.
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