October 9, 2008

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How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (R)
A scrappy young writer learns the dirty truth about the oxymoronically named field of celebrity journalism in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, a sharp comedy that is occasionally, and delightfully, not awful.

Because you can see how it could have been, with its aggressively awful Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) coming to New York City from London with dreams of shaking up Sharps Magazine. Sidney was heretofore a spoiler in the world of writing about celebrities, writing parodies and sarcastic screeds about them after he’s kicked out of their parties. Vanity-Fair-ish Sharps magazine editor Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges) sees something in Sidney — maybe the troublemaker he once was, maybe just a stab at adding a bit of salt to the creamy celebrity coverage. Sidney, after having once made fun of Sharps, happily moves to New York City in hopes of becoming a guest at the parties he was once thrown out of. Even though he delights at his new position, he can’t quite stomach gaining access if it means becoming a preening slimeball like his gossip editor, Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston), who sucks up to celebrity and makes no attempts at puncturing even the most over-inflated ego. Seeming to walk the line between honesty and proximity to fame is Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst), a fellow gossip writer who is secretly working on a novel.

I say this movie is delightfully and surprisingly not awful because it so easily could have been. It has a conventional fish-out-of-water setup and much nonsensical stuff about the nature of fame. But it also has a sharp sense of humor, which is perhaps best used in scenes with Clayton Harding — Jeff Bridges masters the knowing smile that says he recognizes the goofiness of all this fawning over celebrities even as he’s pragmatic about its necessity. Simon Pegg also provides a bit of the tartness that cuts the corn syrup of his screwy fantasy cocktail — he’s very good at the throwaway line and the kind of charm that is self-deprecating and superior at the same time. And it is nice to see Gillian Anderson, who here plays a tough-as-nails publicist, get work that doesn’t involve her chasing aliens or wearing a corset. It’s the strong cast that helps to make up for only so-so material. B-

Rated R for language, some graphic nudity and brief drug material. Directed by Robert B. Weide and written by Peter Straughan (from a book by Toby Young), How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is an hour and 49 minutes long and distributed in limited release by MGM.