Don’t let the title fool you. How To Lose Friends And Alienate People is nothing more than a fairly typical romantic comedy disguised as a satire about the shallow and callow world of high gloss celebrity journalism. It certainly doesn’t have the sharp teeth that the title would lead you to believe. By the time the romantic comedy portion of the film kicks into high gear, it comes almost as a relief, rescuing us from the disappointment of the initial premise not fully living up to its potential.
Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) is editor of a satirical British magazine and a seeming standard-bearer in the adversarial relationship between that countries celebrities and the press. However, he gives it up to take a job at the Manhattan-based Sharps magazine, working for the editor (Jeff Bridges, in a role that does not give him near enough screen time) who once ran a magazine that was an inspiration to Sidney. Unfortunately, Sidney soon discovers that his confrontational style is at odds with the incestuous relationship shared by the writers at Sharps and various high powered publicity flacks. Helping him navigate through this unfamiliar world is Allison (Kirsten Dunst), the only person at Sharps who Sidney hasn’t alienated with his loutish behavior. As expected, the two slowly develop am attraction for each other, though they would both be loath to admit it.
One can almost imagine the pitch meeting in some Hollywood studio’s production office. “It’s like The Devil Wears Prada, but with a dude.” But where that film gracefully intermingled its satirical swipes against the fashion industry with the light drama of the lead character’s love life, How To Lose Friends keeps those two strands fairly separate for most of the picture.
And like The Devil Wears Prada, How To Lose Friends is based on a memoir by someone who actually lived in the belly of the beast. Pegg’s Sidney Young is actually based on Toby Young, the enfant terrible co-editor of the critical British magazine Modern Review who went on to a troubled stint as a writer for Vanity Fair. The real Young actually did send a strip-o-gram to the office on Bring Your Daughter To Work Day as seen in the movie. But with the exception of that scene, Pegg’s version of Young comes off watered down when compared to reports about the real Young’s behavior. Rather than a feisty journalist lashing out at all around him with a sneering contempt and withering wit, the movie Young comes off more as the hapless, bumbling best friend character in a British sitcom. Pegg does get one good scene, where he stands up to a powerful publicist (Gillian Anderson), who expects Young to give her approval over a profile he is working on about one of her clients. The moment shows Young as a man of principal – “I refuse to be bribed to gush sycophantically,” he tells Allison after the encounter. “I chose to gush sycophantically.” – and the movie could have benefitted from further exploration of this aspect of the character.
While standard, the romantic comedy portion of the film at least doesn’t disappoint, probably because the audience has no expectations for the story line. Sidney and Allison’s meeting is done well and the rest of their relationship hits all the expected notes, even if there is no jazzy improvisation to them. As Allison’s boyfriend and Sidney’s story idea-stealing boss Lawrence Maddox, Danny Huston brings obsequiousness and oily to new levels. Coupled with Megan Fox’s ditzy performance as a flavor-of-the-month rising starlet whom Sidney lusts after, you have all the elements for a better film than what we ultimately got.