Commentary: Importing British comedy a big challenge
Bob Weide giving it a shot with 'How to Lose Friends'Bob Weide isn't a guy who shies away from challenges. He logged five years as an executive producer and director on the mostly improvisational HBO comedy "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which means he not only provided direction on a series that eschewed that intangible little element known as a script, but he also worked day after day alongside "Curb" creator-producer-star Larry David and lived to tell the tale.
But what stands to be an even tougher task is riding shotgun with Weide at the moment. It surrounds the first comedy feature he's ever helmed, the inspired MGM release "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People," which opens wide Oct. 3. He's worried about the marketing of a film starring a rubber-faced and animated fellow named Simon Pegg.
It happens that Pegg is a monumentally talented and funny guy. That isn't the problem.
He's British. That's the problem. And much as we Americans like to think we understand their language over in England, there seems to be a translation disconnect when it comes to overseas imports looking to play here on the big screen.
Pegg is a star in the U.K. thanks to the wildly popular 1999-2001 British sitcom "Spaced" and a pair of beloved film comedies: the hit 2004 zombie spoof "Shaun of the Dead" and last year's action farce "Hot Fuzz." Both of the films made big bucks in England but generated less than $50 million combined in North America (though each made a decidedly bigger splash here on DVD).
So while Pegg has his cult of devotees on this side of the Atlantic, that's precisely what it is: a cult, the small but devoted kind. By next summer, it all could be different: He is cast as Scotty in the much-anticipated "Star Trek" theatrical from producer-director J.J. Abrams that's due in May. In the meantime, Pegg isn't exactly an unknown, but he also ain't Hugh Grant. Or even Lou Grant, for that matter.
What, Bob Weide worry?
"Yes, of course I worry because it's out of my control and therefore frustrating," the director says. "I'm hoping this film will do for Simon what 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' did for Grant and, during a previous generation, what 'Arthur' did for Dudley Moore. But we've also surrounded Simon with a lot of very talented actors to help that process along."
It's a little bit startling to note just how few British comic actors have successfully broken out in the U.S. after conquering their homeland. You can pretty much count them on the fingers of a single hand.
But Pegg is smart to have placed his career trust in Weide, whose appreciation for nurturing comedy talent and paying homage to legends of the past really is second to none. A three-time Emmy winner (including a directing nod in 2003 for "Curb"), he has made acclaimed documentaries on the Marx Brothers, Mort Sahl and W.C. Fields and a Lenny Bruce feature docu for which he received a 1999 Oscar nomination.
In "How to Lose Friends," Weide has made a film -- loosely based on the memoir penned by British writer Toby Young about his brief real-life misadventures as a writer for Vanity Fair in New York -- that's at once witty, fearless and surprisingly sweet in the end.
"It felt liberating to direct something where it was just me and the actors and have time to think about how I wanted to shoot something and shape the dialogue and all of the things that come with shooting from an actual script," Weide says. "This isn't a slam at 'Curb,' an experience that was nothing but positive. But directing narrative comedy where everyone's putting their heads together and blocking things out isn't the same."
The movie casts Pegg as Sidney Young, a character best described as inspired by but hardly a kindred match with writer Young. He makes a perfect mess of things as the embodiment of a complete jerk who (spoiler alert!) redeems himself in the end. The impressive cast includes Kirsten Dunst (as his love interest), Jeff Bridges, Gillian Anderson, Danny Huston and Megan Fox.
But again, the question might be whether the audience can forgive Pegg for speaking with that funny little accent.
"The most important thing should be casting the best actors for the roles, not how big a name they are," Weide says. "But of course, my only goal was making the best movie I could. That may be a little old-fashioned."