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How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

See It for Simon Pegg, Stay for the Satire

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, the fictionalized adaptation of Toby Young’s non-fiction book of his time as a contributing writer for Vanity Fair, actor-writer-comedian Simon Pegg plays another narcissistic, self-flagellating, man-child. What connects each character (beyond Pegg, of course), is their painfully awkward, if often hilarious, journey into the adult world of responsibility and a long-term, usually a long-term romantic relationship.

Sidney Young (Simon Pegg), the publisher of a small-time, struggling celebrity-focused, London-based weekly, the Post Modern Review, gets his big break when Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), the editor-in-chief of Sharps magazine (a stand-in for Vanity Fair with Harding based on Vanity Fair’s longtime editor-in-chief, Graydon Carter), offers him a writing/editorial position in New York. Armed with an oversized ego, a ribald, offensive sense of humor, and an incredible lack of tact, Young quickly alienates his co-workers and his immediate superior, Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston), with one exception: Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst), who slowly warms to Young.

Young fails at getting every high-profile assignment and when he comes up with a solid idea for a feature, Maddox takes credit for it. His failures as a writer don’t stop Young from becoming infatuated with the starlet du jour, Sophie Maes (Megan Fox), whose improbable role as a sexy, eroticized Mother Teresa is being carefully massaged by uber-publicist Eleanor Johnson (Gillian Anderson) for a Best Actress nomination at the upcoming Apollo Awards (presumably the Academy Awards by another name). Johnson tests Young’s integrity (what little he seems to have) when she offers him exclusive, strings-attached access to an up-and-coming director, Vincent LaPak (Max Minghella). As Young recklessly pursues a tryst with Maes, his friendship with Alison begins to deepen.

Toby Young’s memoir was justly lauded for satirizing New York’s celebrity-obsessed culture, the celebrities themselves, and the celebrity-by-proxy journalists who cover them for major and minor magazines. Young was unafraid to skewer his own self-absorbed, self-destructive, celebrity-obsessed behavior. The film adaptation of Young’s memoir softens that self-skewering by giving his fictional counterpart a redemptive character arc. In other words, despite his rude, crude behavior, he’s really a good English bloke who’s gone temporarily astray. Peter Straughan’s screenplay also adds romantic comedy tropes (i.e., the wrong, shallow woman vs. the right, good one) that make Toby Young’s satire-worthy characters more sympathetic than they probably deserve.

Luckily, Straughan and director Robert B. Weide had a strong cast to offset How to Lose Friends & Alienate People’s shortcomings. As in his previous comedic turns, Pegg manages to make Young’s professional and personal failures both laugh-worthy and cringe inducing. Pegg is equally good at handling physical comedy and verbal humor, often combining both in the same scene. Megan Fox is surprisingly good as the unsophisticated, dim-witted Sophie Maes. That she almost makes Maes likeable is either a credit to her acting talent or to playing herself (or a reasonable approximation). Kirsten Dunst essays the usually thankless role of the “good girl” with enough energy and enthusiasm to make us forget how conventional and underwritten Alison actually is. But it’s Danny Huston, once again playing a morally compromised egotist, who steals practically every scene he’s in. And really, should really we expect anything else from a comedy called How to Lose Friends & Alienate People? No, not really.