How to Get Ahead in Advertising [DVD]
Screenplay : Bruce Robinson
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1988
Stars : Richard E. Grant (Denis Dimbleby Bagley), Rachel Ward (Julia Bagley), Richard Wilson (John Bristol, Bagley's Boss), Jacqueline Tong (Penny Wheelstock), John Shrapnel (Psychiatrist), Susan Wooldridge (Monica), Hugh Armstrong (Harry Wax)
In Bruce Robinson's acerbic but overstated satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Richard E. Grant stars as Denis Bagley, a slick, ruthless, chain-smoking, and utterly confident advertising executive who, despite 15 years of incredible success selling the public anything and everything, is stumped on how to come up with an ad campaign for pimple cream. In one of the movie's funniest moments, Bagley goes on a diatribe in the middle of a crowded restaurant with his wife, Julia (Rachel Ward), about all the various human ailments he's sold cures for, everything from piles to dandruff, but, for some reason, acne has confounded him.
Unfortunately, most of the films' diatribes are not that funny, even though Grant gives it his all in a superbly wicked performance that carries the whole movie. The problem is in Robinson's screenplay and his conception of the material as satire. Robinson has proved himself to be a gifted screenwriter, in both conventional mainstream dramas such as The Killing Fields (1984) and in the loose comedy of his directorial debut, Withnail and I (1986), in which Grant also starred.
What is surprising is that, in Withnail and I, Robinson showed that writing dialogue was his greatest gift, as that film is fueled entirely by hilarious conversations that get funnier and deeper every time you watch the movie. How to Get Ahead in Advertising is like its polar opposite: Robinson forces so much material into the dialogue in order to make his point that it quickly becomes repetitious and dull. Perhaps the problem is that How to Get Ahead is so wrapped up in making its point about the evils of greed , consumer culture, and the ways in which that culture is sold to us through advertising, that the movie topples over with the weight of its own satirical self-importance.
This is not to say that the movie does not have its moments. In fact, much of it is deliriously funny, bordering on the surreal once Bagley develops a boil on his shoulder that, one morning, opens an eye and speaks to him. Julia thinks that her husband is simply under too much stress, but Bagley is sure that the boil on his shoulder is not only alive, but is growing and starting to take over his body.
Robinson uses this animated skin pustule in a number of interesting ways. On the surface level, it makes for great slapstick comedy, as the boil often speaks so that other people can hear it, but always when Bagley's face is somehow turned away or obscured so that they think it is he who said it. It is here that Grant's performance is at its drop-dead funniest, as he contorts his narrow face into expressions of desperation and exasperation as he attempts to cover up for what the boil says.
On a more symbolic level, the boil stands for everything that is bad about Bagley's life. It is not an accident that it appears right after he has second thoughts about the life he has been living and how he has contributed to a shallow consumer culture out of control. The boil is, in effect, a kind of physical manifestation of all the ills in Bagley's conscience. It can be viewed as purely metaphorical, but I think the film purposefully verges into the fantastical in a way that forces us to take this boil seriously as an actual thing, and not just part of Bagley's warped imagination.
If this were the extent of Robinson's satire, the movie would have worked much better. Unfortunately, he is not content to let the audience draw conclusions for itself, so he fills Bagley's mouth with speech after speech about the movie's big point. By the end, it has expanded beyond advertising and materialism to the concomitant destruction of the environment and every other worldly dilemma that is blamed on free-market capitalism. The point is valid, to be sure, but Robinson doesn't seem to think that his audience will think it is valid, so he keeps arguing it and arguing it through Bagley's dialogue. The result is a funny movie that could have been funnier and more effective if it had spent less time explicating its satirical jabs and more time landing them.
|How to Get Ahead in Advertising: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround|
|Supplements||Original theatrical trailer|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|As with Criterion's other recent release of Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I, the transfer of How to Get Ahead in Advertising is the same one used for the 1997 laser disc because Criterion was unable to gain access to the elements for a new transfer, which means, of course, that it is not anamorphic. The widescreen (1.85:1) image on this disc is still very good, though, as the laser-disc transfer was taken from the 35mm internegative and was supervised by cinematographer Peter Hannan. While it lacks the crispness of a good anamorphic transfer, detail level is still quite good, and colors are bright and bold throughout.|
|The two-channel Dolby Digital surround, transferred from the original stereo magnetic tracks, is very effective. Although not aggressive in any way, the original stereo mix does a fine job of spacing out the soundtrack, especially when music is involved.|
|The only included supplement is the original theatrical trailer, presented in nonanamorphic widescreen.|
©2001 James Kendrick