How to Lose Friends & Alienate People Review

A comedy of social errors.

It’s funny how some films turn out, when the various constituent parts all point towards a particular style or tone, only for the film to end up being, well, not quite what was expected…

In the case of ‘How to Lose Friends and Alienate People’, a cursory glance at the director (Robert Weide, sometime producer and director of ‘Curb your Enthusiasm’) and the source material (Toby Young’s memoirs of the same name) suggested a demanding film full of sharp satire; an awkward, divisive and oft-irritating central character; and little chance of broad appeal or success: ‘The Office’ by way of ‘Nathan Barley’, perhaps.

Somewhat surprisingly then, what follows is something rather different: a slick romantic comedy that is eminently easy to watch, but one that is softer and more mundane than readers of Young’s book – and those familiar with ‘Curb…’ – might have been expecting (and maybe wanting). This is not to say that ‘How to Lose Friends and Alienate People’ doesn’t have its merits though: most obviously, a good cast and some standout moments help to lift a fairly ordinary script and lend the film that much more charm and interest.

The film follows the frequently embarrassing and occasionally very funny ‘exploits’ (a loose term here) of Sidney Young – Simon Pegg’s cocksure British hack – as he looks to establish himself as a journalist and media-type in America. Hired by the editor of Sharps magazine in a moment of whimsy and nostalgia, Young proceeds to annoy, upset and alienate just about everyone he meets (including his new colleagues) with his selfish attitude, misplaced confidence and shameless self-promotion.

Except that he never really does, not properly anyway. Sure, there are moments of true embarrassment and social ineptitude – and they are funny, but Pegg’s Young never really convinces as a complete outcast or an unmitigated disaster. Instead of being an insufferable jerk, Young comes across as a stumbling, bumbling Englishman abroad, his accent and tweed jackets clashing with the sharp New York look, but his moments of idiocy and unseemly desperation more than balanced by those showing a genuine compassion or integrity. Notably, Young is actually shown to have more principles and decency than those around him, particularly Danny Huston’s brilliantly lecherous media whore (a point emphasised by the film’s ending).

In itself, this slight fallacy would not necessarily have constituted a problem for the film, and in truth it was probably decided at an early stage that Toby Young would not make for the hero (or even anti-hero) of the film. Moreover, even if this decision was made for commercial reasons in the first instance – and this is quite likely, toning down Young’s excesses for the film was understandable and could even have been sensible, assuming it was done well.

This is where the film missteps, however, and it is noticeable that Weide struggles to resolve the abrasive, self-important idiot of Toby Young’s book with the affable loser of this and so many other romantic comedies (think Pegg’s roles in ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Run Fatboy Run’ for immediate references). The result of this is that both the protagonist and the film feel confused and conflicted – sometimes one thing, sometimes another, but all too often unsure of exactly what they are, what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. Disappointingly, ‘How to Lose Friends…’ ends up as a compromise, reluctant to move much closer to the possible offence of Young’s book, but also aware that straying too much further down the line of romantic comedy would negate the use of the book in the first place. Not unlike other recent comedies, ‘Pineapple Express’ and ‘Knocked Up’ for instance, ‘How to Lose Friends and Alienate People’ is decidedly uneven; when the film is funny it’s definitely funny, but it’s not funny often enough.

This is especially true when the film does look to satirise the gloss, hypocrisy and nepotism of the film industry and the media: Jeff Bridges gets exactly right one superb moment at the end of an awards ceremony – cutting through all the pretence and self-importance of the film industry, but too much around that moment is uninspired. Perhaps surprisingly, the film is not really any sharper than ‘Ugly Betty’ or even ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. For a film that promised incisive satire, there are too many lacklustre moments here that could belong in just about any romantic comedy.

Not that any of this is the fault of the actors involved. Pegg is good throughout, nearly bringing together a compromised and disparate character; Jeff Bridges is suave and funny as Clayton Harding (the editor of Sharps) and Gillian Anderson is wicked as an unscrupulous agent. Likewise Danny Huston, who is effortlessly false and repellent as Young’s rival. Kirsten Dunst draws something of a short straw as Sidney’s only friend, though – credible and sometimes funny, but hindered by the cliches and limitations of her character.

All of which leaves ‘How to Lose Friends and Alienate People’ as a patchy but still reasonably enjoyable comedy. There’s not really enough of an edge to the film, reflecting both the difficulties posed by Toby Young’s book and the commercial decisions made in production, and the result of this is that ‘How to Lose Friends and Alienate People’ may not be the film that some people might been expecting. It is well acted though, and has enough laughs to entertain as it is.

As a slight aside, the film also benefits from the sheer likeability of Simon Pegg. Not unlike Bruce Campbell, Zach Braff and now Michael Cera, an awful lot of people take to Simon Pegg, in part because of his previous work, and in part because he comes across as a funny and genuine guy. These people will probably like this film (or at least want to like it) just that little bit more, regardless of its faults. 6/10 then.

Chris Stringer

Updated: Oct 09, 2008

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
How to Lose Friends & Alienate People Review | The Digital Fix