How to Lose Friends & Alienate People Review

Remember when British comedies actually looked and felt British? When Four Weddings and a Funeral resurrected the Britcom like a big floppy-haired, stuttering phoenix we celebrated a glut of homegrown successes that ran the gamut of comedy dramas both good and bad, but were all instantly recognisable as the work of good old blighty. Nowadays – for better or worse – British films tend to have more of that Hollywood veneer, with more American directors coming over here to kickstart their feature-length careers, which is resulting in more British flicks being set in America with a largely American cast.

Simon Pegg’s rising career frequently straddles the line between distinctively British comedies when working with Spaced cohort Edgar Wright, and heavily Americanised indie comedies when not. We’ve had the absolutely woeful Big Nothing, the rather more endearing but unexceptional Run Fatboy Run, and now he brings us How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.

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Simon stars as Sidney Young a brash, cocky London journalist whose desperation to find a way into the inner sanctum of film industry shindigs often leads to embarrassing spectacle. After a particularly disastrous attempt to hobnob with the stars at a post-BAFTA bash, Sidney comes to the attention of Clayton Harding, the editor of Sharps, New York’s No.1 celebrity magazine. Clayton flies Sidney over and puts him to work in the magazine’s Eye Spy column, where the arrogant, boorish Brit proceeds to offend and embarrass both himself and anyone he comes into contact with. Against the odds Sidney manages to strike up a friendship with colleague Alison, who is in a rather unfulfilling relationship with a mystery man, but his amorous attentions are placed firmly on sexy rising starlet Sophie Maes, and it’s an obsession that can lead to him compromising his journalistic integrity.

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is based on the same-titled novel by slightly notorious British journalist: Toby Young, who started out as founder and editor of the Modern Review and eventually had a rather unsuccessful stint as a writer for Vanity Fair, from which much of his book draws its inspiration. Before seeing this film I was vaguely aware of Young’s early career working alongside Julie Birchill, but it’s probably fair to say that these days Young is best known for his regular appearances on culinary shows and as a culture commentator on those “Top 100” polls Channel 4 used to produce every week or so. From what I’ve seen of Toby he struck me as a reasonably witty little chap who usually has an interesting take on the entertainment industry, and I can’t speak for his novel, but How to Lose Friends & Alienate People the film doesn’t quite set the world alight as a satire of America’s increasingly vapid celebrity culture. Most of its observations on the film industry are pretty self-evident: Publicists have all the power and are using it to hype up young airheads as the new age gurus of popular culture.

Yup, earlier comedies have been here before, and like most of those films How to Lose Friends & Alienate People just doesn’t have sharp enough teeth to really make a strong impression, instead Robert Weide’s film settles into an extremely generic, formulaic romantic/corporate comedy plotline that most writers could and probably do churn out in their lunch break naptime. And yet, despite such an uninspiring narrative I found myself enjoying How to Lose Friends a fair bit more than I expected from the myopic ad campaign. This is down to the characterisation; at the epicentre of the film is a simple tale of a growing bond between 2 very likeable lead characters.

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Sidney Young is convincingly and subtly developed up until the inevitable “corrupted by the industry” arc kicks in, in the final act. When we first meet him he’s a completely arrogant git whose smugness when commentating on celebrity culture is only matched by his shallow desperation to be on equal footing with said celebrities, and bed as many attractive women as possible. Gradually, as the story unfolds we start to see a more sincere and considerate side to him, and for all his cynicism he demonstrates moments of naivety that reveals him to be bit of an idealist. Allison on the other hand provides a welcome counter-point as the more considerate and self-contained foil to Sidney’s unashamedly brash personality.

Simon Pegg and Kirsten Dunst’s performances force the most out of these roles, Dunst has great chemistry with Pegg and captures the insecurities of her character without making her seem as needy as the script would suggest. Pegg is absolutely first class as Sidney, proving yet again that he’s a much more talented actor than people give him credit for being. He ensures that Sidney is both amusing and vulgar, but always humanised and accessible. The supporting roles are much less developed, but still impressively characterised and portrayed by an ensemble cast. Jeff Bridges puts in the best performance of the film after Pegg as Sidney’s jaded boss, and it’s to the film’s detriment that he wasn’t incorporated more into the plot. Gillian Anderson is low-key as the queen bee publicist, Eleanor Johnson, and defies the conventions of this type of role. Danny Huston and Megan Fox also do well as unscrupulous journalist Lawrence Maddox and rising starlet Sophie Maes, but the writing for their roles is more than a little lightweight.

Of course, strong characterisation and performances alone does not always make a good film, but in How to Lose Friends & Alienate People it at least makes for an engaging, if unadventurous one!

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Presentation

Paramount present How to Lose Friends & Alienate People on a BD50 disc, using the AVC codec to provide a very strong transfer that has one or two little niggles in places. Weide used a number of filters on the image throughout the film so colour tone can vary quite wildly, but overall the colours are rich and vivid and pretty clean. Some very minor chroma noise and a little colour bleed in areas of rich colour creep into the image at one or two points - most noticeably around the edges of the bright red T-shirt Sidney wears on his first day at Sharps (which you can find a screengrab of below). Fleshtones generally look very natural and lean a little towards warmer tones at times; Simon Pegg looks quite redfaced and appears either sunburnt or covered in rashes in a number of scenes. Black levels are very solid and brightness feels very accurate, as does contrast; shadow detail is high, but then this is not a particularly dark film.

The print used features a surprising amount of specks and scratches, nothing that is remotely distracting when watching the film, but definitely more than you’d usually expect from such a recent production. Image detail is pretty high with no visible signs of DNR, so we have a pretty film-like transfer with omnipresent grain that varies from appearing quite heavy to a rather light layer. In particular the external shots of New York have an impressive level of clarity and demonstrate that Blu-ray “pop”. There is some ringing present in the odd scene, and like the grain can vary from very minor enhancements to quite noticeable outlines; for instance the visible outline of the hotel guy who discovers Sidney’s pig-wrecked hotel room in the opening sequence. The AVC encode has a bitrate that averages out at 37.28Mbps and the compression is very good; aside from the aforementioned chroma noise the only noticeable compression artefact is some mosquito noise around the opening credits.

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Audio options are limited to just an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that certainly does an undemanding film justice. Bass is suitably rich and dialogue is crisp and clear with no audible distortions or tearing. Sound dynamics are very strong and the front stage is expressive, so when the soundtrack kicks in or there’s a particularly loud party sequence the TrueHD track opens up nicely. The rear staging is less noticeable given the nature of the film, but it’s present and solid when needed.

Also included is a Dolby Digital 2.0 English Audio Descriptive Track, which announces the appearance of Thandie Newton as “beautiful Thandie Newton”, which you know, just so blind viewers know what they’re missing! Also included are optional subtitles in English and English for the Hearing Impaired.

Extras

There’s a relatively small selection of extra features on this disc, but every one of them is worthwhile. Here we go:

Deleted Scenes (15min:02secs):10 scenes featured here, almost all of which definitely should have been excised from the film. There are two exceptions, the first is the scene where Sidney bumps into the fading (and now rising) star whose autograph he asked for earlier in the film, which pays off the set up of her saying she’ll remember their meeting. The second exception is a small scene at the fancy dress party where Lawrence really antagonises Sidney, this provides the primary motivation for Sidney’s decision to sell out and start playing the publicity game.

Commentary with Robert Weide & Simon Pegg: An entertaining commentary track that imparts a fair bit of information on the film’s shoot. Weide often repeats snippets from his solo commentary but he clearly gets along very well with Pegg and the two bounce off each other very well. Pegg in particular seems to delight in winding up the soft spoken director, and Weide gives as good as he gets.

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Commentary with Robert Weide: Bizarrely the first 73minutes of this commentary was recorded before the collaborative one with Simon Pegg, but then the session ends and it resumes with a second session with Weide that was recorded after the Pegg commentary. This track is a lot more routine and technical, providing plenty of information on the film’s shoot.

Gag Reel (31m:50s): I love a good gag reel, but these Blu-ray reels that go on and on for up to an hour sometimes really do push the limit of my attention. This one isn’t too long I guess at just over half an hour, and features many a funny cock up, I particularly got some perverse pleasure from seeing Miriam Margolyes beat the crap out of Simon Pegg.

Blogs (17m:23s): This is basically a video diary of the film's shoot split across 6 segments that were each filmed on a different day of production. It features behind the scenes footage mixed with on-set comments by Pegg & Weide, and a number of the co-stars.

All extra features are presented in standard definition PAL (720x576) at an anamorphic 1.78:1 ratio and come with optional English subtitles, including all the commentary tracks.

Overall

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is certainly not the most groundbreaking British comedy of recent years, but strong characterisation and excellent performances raise it above standard fare. Paramount have done a commendable job with the Blu-ray, providing strong audiovisual presentation and a small, but amusing selection of extra features.

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Film
6 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
7 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

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