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When a title describes a film too well

POSTED: October 5, 2008 5:01 a.m.
/MGM

Simon Pegg, left, stars in "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People," playing a sleazy journalist pandering to a film star, played by Megan Fox.

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If Simon Pegg isn’t careful, the title of his latest film could become a description of the British comedian’s attempts to become a Hollywood star.

Pegg has made his mark in well-written, off-beat movies that defy formulas and appeal to cinephiles. If you know and love movies, you know and love "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," movies that have earned devoted followings.

"How to Lose Friends and Alienate People" is Pegg’s second starring role in an American film ("Run Fatboy Run" was the first), and it is as formulaic and bland as a photo op with the queen.

Pegg plays Sidney Young, who dreams of life among the jet set but is never allowed to pass beyond the velvet rope. His transparent and juvenile response to being shut out of the glamorous life is to edit a snotty magazine whose sole mission is to trash celebrities.

"How to Lose Friends" thus has one huge problem: Even though Sidney recognizes how superficial and inane the celebrity world is, he wants desperately to become part of it. He is willing to sell his journalistic soul for something that he knows is morally bankrupt and unsatisfying.

We, the audience, have no reason to care whether he reaches his goals or not.

Unfortunately, that’s just what the movie is about: Sidney trying to crash the party of the rich and famous. He gets the chance to write for New York-based, industry-leading Sharp’s Magazine. He arrives in America and proceeds to insult and offend everyone in his path, including moviegoers.

Sidney irritates editor Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges); defies uber-powerful agent Eleanor Johnson (Gillian Anderson); conflicts with Lawrence Maddox, his rival at the magazine (Danny Huston); panders to starlet Sophie Maes (Megan Fox); yet cozies up to fellow downtrodden journalist Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst).

You know it’s bad writing when that cast cannot save the movie. None of these supporting players get to flesh out their character.

Alison is yet another smart, capable career woman held back by an inexplicable penchant for bad relationships with loathsome men. Her character is little more than a tired plot device.

The premise of "How to Lose Friends" owes much to "The Devil Wears Prada," but "Prada" was able to make the world of high fashion look alluring. We could understand how Andrea could get sucked into the vortex of fabulous clothes and luminous people. The world of celebrity magazines in "How to Lose Friends" never draws us in, and neither do the jokes.

So many of the gags either fall flat or, worse, make us uncomfortable. During an interview, Sidney asks an actor whether he’s Jewish, then whether he’s gay.

Instead of a bumbling, amusing fool, Sidney comes off as anti-Semitic and homophobic.

Another scene has a drunk Sidney screaming "England" over and over during a swanky July Fourth party.

In short, he makes an ass of himself at every opportunity, and rarely is Sidney’s brand of ass all that funny.

Message to Pegg: We’re not giving up on you just yet, but perhaps we need some time apart. Go back to England for a while, reunite with old friends Edgar Wright and Nick Frost and send us an occasional movie postcard to let us know how you’re doing.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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