Original Review by Clark Douglas

“How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” is based on the life of Toby Jones, a writer for Vanity Fair magazine who did indeed lose a lot of friends and alienate a lot of people. For all of Jones’ faults, at least he was honest enough about himself to write a very unflattering autobiography of sorts. The film is a little kinder to Jones than the book was, largely because the role of Jones is played by Simon Pegg, an actor who is rather difficult to dislike completely. This creates a lead character that is more appealing than he might have been, but perhaps that reward is earned at the expense of the film as a whole.

Here, Pegg’s character goes by the name of “Sydney Jones”, and he goes to work for a magazine that is essentially Vanity Fair in all but name. The magazine is run by a fellow played by Jeff Bridges, who is one of the few actors who can seem both irritated and relaxed at the same time. Bridges hires Jones on something of a whim, admiring the fearlessly rude work Jones has been doing on a much smaller magazine. Unfortunately, Jones may be more trouble than anyone bargained for. He behaves badly, doesn’t play well with others, and hires a transvestite stripper to pay a visit to the office on “bring your daughter to work day”.

Jones yearns to write the kind of ruthless material he built his unsavory reputation on, but he keeps running into brick walls while working for this high-profile company. Either he isn’t allowed to trash someone for fear of upsetting a powerful publicist (Gillian Anderson) or his articles aren’t printed because the editor is unhappy with his sloppy writing. He’s also being treated quite badly by his direct superior (Danny Huston), who doesn’t seem to want Sydney to make any progress. Sydney finds himself in a couple of romantic difficulties, too. He pines after his co-worker (Kirsten Dunst) who just so happens to be dating Huston, and he lusts after a movie star (Megan Fox) who will remain unattainable unless he writes a flattering puff piece about her. Oh, what is a fearless journalist/unpleasant person to do?

The film succeeds early on, thanks to some genuinely witty dialogue and some very enjoyable performances. Pegg is genuinely entertaining in his self-absorbed role, and he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Danny Huston has never seemed more like his father than in this film (which should tell you everything you need to know about his character and his performance), and Jeff Bridges has a way of making even the most inconsequential scene memorable. Kirsten Dunst is much better than usual, and Megan Fox shows a sense of comedic talent that she was not permitted to display in “Transformers”. Unfortunately, the fun stops all too quickly. I was quite disheartened to discover that the formulaic plot elements taking Jones on his obligatory dramatic arc of redemption had taken over by the halfway point. After the first forty-five minutes or so, the film becomes quite predictable and only occasionally enjoyable. We aren’t given quite enough entertainment to make the banal padding worthwhile. At least the recent “Ghost Town” spent a solid 70% of its running time making us laugh before it turned to familiar mush.

To make matters worse, some of the comedic scenes here are obnoxiously broad and unfunny. One of these scenes involves a pig. Another one involves a puppy. Yet another involves a bag of cocaine. Each of these scenes feels like they belong in another movie, perhaps an R-rated version of “College Road Trip”. In many ways, the film reminded me of “The Devil Wears Prada”, another modestly entertaining film that spent too much of it’s running time either tossing out poorly-conceived gags or unconvincing sermons.

You may be as surprised as I was to discover that the score was written by none other than David Arnold. For some curious reason, when Arnold is not working on blockbusters or Bond films, he seems to get stuck with incredibly dull scoring assignments. As in such films as “Stoned” and “Venus”, here his work plays second fiddle to song selections. Music from The Kinks, The Ramones, Dusty Springfield, Duffy, and others populate the energetic soundtrack (which is really pretty decent). I’m also very pleased to report that composer Nino Rota gets to step into the spotlight on three different occasions, as the film makes generous use of his iconic theme from “La Dolce Vita”. But enough about that. How does Arnold fare here? Well, it’s a mixed bag. There is a shimmering string theme that is attractive enough, but often seems to be cranked a bit too loud in the film (not a complaint I make about nice film music very often). There’s also some more generic prancing comedy scoring that could have been written by anyone. However, Arnold’s voice shines through during the film’s first half, when he gets to provide some energetic and ritzy pieces that nicely capture the glamorous and glittery feel of life in Hollywood. Actually, these loosely resemble pieces of Theodore Shapiro’s score for “The Devil Wears Prada”, which I have no doubt was used on the temp track. It’s not a bad effort, but Arnold’s contributions pale in comparison to the song selections (something I am pained to admit as someone who tires easily of comedies with lots of song selections). The soundtrack features 4 tracks from Arnold’s score alongside a varies and eclectic song collection.

Perhaps I’m making How to Lose Friends and Alienate People sound a bit worse than it actually is. The weak elements here only seem so disappointing because the film actually demonstrates that it could have been something smart and satisfying. If you watch the film you will find some small pleasures and some big laughs here and there, but not quite enough to make you feel like your hard-earned ten bucks has been well-spent.

Rating: **½

Track Listing:

  • Enough Love (performed by Duffy)
  • What A Wonderful World (performed by Joey Ramone)
  • Ace of Spades (performed by Mötörhead)
  • Chicken Payback (performed by The Bees)
  • Spooky (performed by Dusty Springfield)
  • Drinks Taste Better When They’re Free (performed by Electrovamp)
  • La Dolce Vita (In Via Veneto) (written by Nino Rota)
  • Get Over It (performed by Guillemots)
  • Heavy Like Sunday (performed by Leona Naess)
  • You Really Got Me (performed by The Kinks)
  • I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ (performed by Scissor Sisters)
  • For Reasons Unknown (performed by The Killers)
  • With Every Heartbeat (performed by Robyn)
  • I Love What You Do (performed by Electrovamp)
  • How To Lose Friends
  • Sharps, Sophie, Cuba, Chaos
  • How To Make Friends
  • Living The Dream
  • La Dolce Vita (Finale) (written by Nino Rota)

Mercury Records B001GCEO2G (2008)

Music composed by David Arnold. Edited by Peter Clarke. Score produced by David Arnold.

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