How To Get Ahead in Advertising (Criterion Collection) Review

Alexander Larman has reviewed the Criterion Region 0 release of How to get ahead in advertising. An interesting if flawed film gets a surprisingly disappointing DVD treatment from Criterion.

The Film

Bruce Robinson has, to date, directed three films. The first of these was the seminal comic masterpiece Withnail and I (which, if you haven’t seen, shame on you!), the second was this film, and the last was the intriguing but flawed and confused Jennifer 8, an American psychological thriller that felt like incredibly unfamiliar territory for Robinson, and was a massive flop at the box office. Given his comparative lack of output since then, with his most notable credit being to co-write Neil Jordan’s In Dreams, it’s tempting to look at How to…, and ask whether it was the root of Robinson’s subsequent failure to deliver on Withnail’s promise.

The plot is spectacularly bizarre. Dennis Bagley, a neurotic advertising executive (Grant), is desperately trying to find a cream for pimples to advertise, much to the irritation of his boss (Wilson), and the dismay of his wife (Ward). However, this being a surrealistic comedy, he goes insane, grows a talking boil on his neck, and then gets taken over by the boil. Amongst all of this we have some truly hysterical comic moments, the two greatest being an early scene on a train and a scene midway with a psychiatrist.

However, it’s a badly flawed film for three reasons. The first is that Robinson isn’t very interested in his female characters, with Ward playing little more than a cipher and the other parts being little more than empty stereotypes of such standbys as the overweight best friend (who at one point is subjected to the classic line ‘You’re so fat we’d have to climb over scaffolding to need to feed you’). However, a more serious fault is that there’s the lingering feeling that Robinson hasn’t any real insight into his characters apart from Bagley, meaning that Grant’s stunning performance (the only one of his other than Withnail to really showcase his comic genius) exists in something of a vacuum, and there’s a slight feeling of desperation when Tony Slattery appears in a small part.

However, the most serious flaw is also paradoxically the film’s most interesting facet. Essentially, this is a satire much in the same way that Swift’s ‘Modest proposal’ was a satire, with all the bile and vitriol that that entails, against both the advertising world and Thatcher’s Britain. As such, there’s a near-constant feeling of hysteria, which makes the film somewhat tiring to watch, but also strangely exciting, as the plot is so completely unpredictable that you half expect the central character to do something outrageous, and are then surprised when he in fact does. It’s not an especially ground-breaking film technically, but there’s an energy and wit here that many lesser films would do well to emulate. And, finally, can you not warm to a film where it is suggested at one point that the anti-hero’s insanity is caused by the fact that his grandfather once molested a kangaroo?

The Picture

Unlike their Withnail disc, where the lack of anamorphic enhancement didn’t matter a great deal, the picture quality here is fairly poor. Colours are dark, there’s a lot of softness to the transfer, there’s some shimmering, and, most irritatingly of all, the print has occasional ‘cigarette burns’ where the reel would have been changed in the cinema. It’s perfectly watchable, but not much more, and a disappointment from Criterion.

The Sound

Allegedly a surround mix, it sounded more like mono to me. Music and dialogue are located almost entirely in the centre channel, with no noticeable use of the rear speakers, and dialogue is frequently very quiet, necessitating turning up the sound to almost unreasonably loud levels to hear what’s being said. Very disappointing.

The Extras

A mediocre trailer, and a rather better printed essay by Stanley Kauffman, which gets a few things in slightly clearer perspective.


A flawed but interesting film gets a thoroughly mediocre DVD transfer. Really only recommended for aficionados of Richard E Grant or Bruce Robinson. A further recommendation for Robinson fans is the excellent book ‘Smoking in Bed’ by Alistair Owens, which is a candid collection of interviews with Robinson in which he admits to dissatisfaction with all his films save Withnail, and has some interesting things to say about this one.

Alexander Larman

Updated: Jul 19, 2001

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