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Opens: Friday, Oct. 3 (MGM)
A film that sets out to demonstrate the shallows of celebrity-obsessed pop journalism should at least offer a few fully fleshed characters, if only as a point of comparison.
“How to Lose Friends & Alienate People” keeps stubbornly to the surface, though, reducing Toby Young’s sharp-eyed memoir of his rise and fall at Vanity Fair to an uninspired romantic comedy punctuated by cheap jokes. Simon Pegg is likably smart and obnoxious as the fish-out-of-water Brit in high-gloss Manhattan, but he’s swimming upstream in a feature that substitutes slapstick for scathing wit.
The adaptation, credited to Peter Straughan, uses anecdotes from the 2001 book while jettisoning its thoughtful observations about status, meritocracy and capitalism. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that comedy aficionado Robert Weide, directing his first narrative feature after numerous docus and episodes of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” struggles to find a rhythm. Still, the cast and subject matter are bound to make friends if not meaningful relationships at the boxoffice.
The names have been changed, just barely. The protagonist here is Sidney Young, Vanity Fair is called Sharps, and its imperious rebel-turned-power-broker editor, Graydon Carter, is dubbed Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges). Clayton summons Sidney from London — where he publishes a snarky alternative mag from his apartment over a kebab joint — to the haute publishing world of New York. Why he does so is never clear. Sidney wants to believe that his mission is to inject some of the old Snipe (read: Spy) spirit into Sharps, but Clayton isn’t interested in what he has to offer.
While riding elevators with lots of tall women in designer clothes, coveting a Tinseltown It girl (Megan Fox) and overturning every A-list apple cart he stumbles upon, Sidney falls for co-worker Alison (Kirsten Dunst). Not far beneath her flintiness she’s sweet and “real” — a Midwestern transplant who’s writing a novel in longhand, dontcha know, all too clearly setting her off from the superficial climbers around her.
The story’s dividing lines are nothing if not unambiguous. The Faustian bargain of high-profile, publicist-driven journalism is ripe for sendup, but with so many broadly drawn characters, the film has no satiric bite. When it isn’t indulging in stupidity, it’s belaboring the obvious: Sidney’s philosopher father (Bill Patterson) shows up to provide an apt Einstein quote about success versus value.
A few well-executed stingers punctuate the proceedings, and a film-within-the-film offers a nice spoof of Hollywood miscasting at its most ridiculous: A luscious starlet (the excellent Fox) plays the young Mother Teresa. For its part, “How to Lose Friends” collects a fine group of actors but gives them little to do beyond striking one-note poses: Dunst’s glowing love interest, Gillian Anderson’s master manipulator publicist, Miriam Margolyes’ prying Polish landlady, Max Minghella’s pretentious filmmaker and Danny Huston’s villainous editor. The always welcome Bridges brings some nice detail to his role but essentially remains stuck in caricature.
Sidney is the only full-fledged human being on display. Beyond Pegg’s crisp comic delivery, he’s terrifically touching in a throwaway moment when Sidney refers to his deceased actress mother (“played” by Janette Scott in a clip from the 1956 film “Now and Forever”).
The film’s design elements and visuals play a quiet supporting role, solid but undistinguished.
Production: Intandem Films, Film4 and the U.K. Film Council in association with Aramid Entertainment present a Stephen Woolley/Elizabeth Karlsen/Number 9 Films production in association with Audley Films.
Cast: Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst, Danny Huston, Gillian Anderson, Megan Fox, Max Minghella, Jeff Bridges. Miriam Margolyes, Bill Patterson.
Director: Robert Weide.
Screenwriter: Peter Straughan.
Based upon the book by Toby Young.
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, Paul White, Simon Fawcett, Gary Smith.
Producers: Stephen Woolley, Elizabeth Karlsen.
Director of photography: Oliver Stapleton.
Production designer: John Beard.
Music: David Arnold.
Co-producers: Toby Young, Laurie Borg.
Costume designer: Annie Hardinge.
Editor: David Freeman.
Rated R, 109 minutes.
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