Square Pegg

Nobody has a good word to say about Toby Young, including Toby Young. In his memoir of a failed career as a New York society writer, How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, he boasts of his “negative charisma”, the same bad vibrations that reportedly drove Robert Weide to remove him from the set of this film adaptation when he began to offer the director notes on the actors performances. Since his book was published in 2002, Young has made his name as a writer by chronicling his own inadequacies. By his own admission he has no shortage of material to work with but the same is not true of the film, which starts in a muddle and quickly exhausts itself.

We first meet Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) as he struggles to publish another issue of his London based satirical magazine. His desperate attempts to make a success of his hip but penniless London magazine have somehow come to the attention of Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), the floppy haired editor of New York’s prestigious Sharp’s magazine (all the names have been changed to protect the guilty, but Bridges is essentially a lawyer-friendly clone of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter).

Badly dressed and bathed in a panicked sweat, Sidney is quickly brought up to speed on life in the Big Apple. Only a chosen few will rise above the herd so if Sidney wants into what Harding calls “the seventh room”, he’d better learn to pucker up. His only friend on the magazine is the clued-in Allison (a disappointingly remote Kirsten Dunst) who claims she hates him and is only marking time before finishing her novel. Sidney is too infatuated with beautiful but dim actress Sophie Maes (Megan Fox, playing herself essentially) to notice.

A fish out of water, Sidney duly flops about on deck in a series of dim-witted set-ups spiked with celebrity cameos and media-friendly references. The story proper starts when Sidney learns the secret to success is access so cosies up to all-powerful publicist Eleanor Johnson (Gillian Anderson). A photo by-line, a Park Avenue apartment, an open invitation to celebrity parties and a swanky watch all arrive in quick succession. You don’t need to have seen The Apartment, The Sweet Smell Of Success or it’s imitators like The Devil Wears Prada, to know that Sidney will eventually come to realise that his toadying has cost him his integrity.

Struggling writers have been the jumping off point for countless comedies, from Adaptation to Barton Fink, but HTWFAAP simply isn’t smart enough to tackle the theme, taking instead the easy route of lengthy montage, eye-rolling slapstick and some derivative nonsense with a Chihuahua. It is all tinged with a snide sense of injustice and a curious reverse snobbery, some of which manages to be faintly amusing, but the remainder decidedly less so.

Pegg has proven himself to be a nimble comic presence, using his mobile, expressive face to fill the frame with gurning despair or wrinkle-nosed self-loathing. Underneath the buffoonery, there is a performance but Sydney is so obnoxious, even in the scenes where we are supposed to like him that Pegg fails to win us over. This inability to connect with our odious anti-hero, or to feel anything for his inevitable conversion, is the film’s most significant flaw but it is not the only one.

Director Robert Waide, whose resume includes episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, has form when it comes to unlikeable, spiky characters but his treatment of the material here is anonymous and lumpy. He pushes the one-directional story along at a fair clip but Peter Straughan’s script gets too distracted along the way. Allison’s covert romance with the pompous sub-editor Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston) is hastily established and even more quickly resolved. Neither actor can do anything with it. Sideshows from Miriam Margolyes as the elaborately moustachioed Eastern European landlady and Bill Patterson as Sidney’s estranged intellectual father are abandoned once they deposit their narrative burdens. The greatest waste is Bridges, presented with a few illuminating moments as the taciturn mentor but inelegantly squashed into the remainder of the story.

Read my interview with Pegg and compadre Nick Frost for Hot Fuzz here

1 comment:

Alan said...

John the titles for your reviews are brilliant.
I was hoping Pegg and Waide could do something with it but I'll definitely avoid this film.