Skip to main content

What about large, blind, fat girls with boils?

How to Get Ahead in Advertising
(1989)

(SPOILERS) Bruce Robinson’s mostly forgotten sophomore outing follows in step with more than a few directors’ crash-back-down-to-earth second feature following a much-feted debut (Kafka, Southland Tales). Robinson allows his passion to get the better of him, and the result is a high-concept, one-joke state-of-the-nation polemic that isn’t nearly as sharp as it would like to think. Mainly because it mistakes a point for a bludgeon. He isn’t alone in this type of hoisted-by-one’s-own-petard thinking – Downsizing is just a recent example of blithe disconnect with a sketch concept that audiences simply won’t be interested in stretched to feature length – but even in outline form (a vituperative boil growing on adman Richard E Grant’s neck becomes a second head, subsuming his actual one, and so takes over) it was obvious How to Get Ahead in Advertising was on rocky ground.


It doesn’t help that the delineation of the various stages of REG’s Denis Dimbleby Bagley’s dementia is so skew-whiff. He’s at his most enthusiastically jaundiced – Withnail-esque, if you like – during the first half hour, before he has a crisis of faith in the advertising industry and resigns. So basically, he has to become a weak figure in order that the strong, undiluted, moustachioed boil can take over. But he hasn’t been in the throes of a breakdown long enough for that character to make a mark. The boil version is a less playful, less fun version of the original ethics-impaired incarnation. Essentially, Robinson comes up with a very inelegant concept for his split personality, one that’s visually off-putting and clumsily broad and literal; you can pull this kind of thing off, as Fincher proved a decade later with Fight Club, but you need much more robust underpinnings to begin with.


One might charitably suggest the literalness of approach is simply a gauged response to the climate of the time, the choke of Thatcherism and “greed is good”, and thus the cynical, barbed, diatribe of spleen is entirely appropriate. That rather lets Robinson off the hook, though; Alistair Owen, in Smoking in Bed, suggested to Robinson the film was Swiftian, although, lest that seems like a way of suggesting its flagrant excessiveness is fine, he also thinks the picture’s problem is that “it tries to say everything about everything”. Robinson seemed accepting of this, agreeing that “it becomes too didactic, too much of an earful, and therefore it’s self-defeating”. He recalls how, when he first took his now-wife Sophie Windham out to dinner, he launched into an hour-and-a-half speech about Maggie; “She told me that after about twenty minutes she just cut off and nodded. And that’s what became of the film: most of the audience cut off and nodded”.


And that’s it, essentially. There’s nothing for the picture to do besides showcasing the Boil venting bile. There are no real characters or subplots to take the pressure off. Rachel Ward has the thankless, reactive wife role (Robinson recognised this as an issue, admitting he would make her more proactive in retrospect, but it’s really a problem for everyonewho isn’t REG). Robinson voiced the Boil, whose views are essentially Thatcher’s views (hating trains) or those of her ilk. 


Other characters come and go, Richard Wilson less effective than he should be as Bagley’s boss, Jacqueline Tong as hypocritical vegan feminist Penny (“Fish is allowed!”) – who does rather stand out as an object of Robinson’s invective, whatever he may profess about her simply being a focus of Bagley’s blinkered censure – and John Shrapnel as Bagley’s psychiatrist (also blink-and-mess-them are Sean Bean, Tony Slattery – in the era of his presenting Saturday Night at the Movies; remember that? Just me then – and the recently departed Jacqueline Pearce). 


Robinson said he was particularly motivated to make the picture as an exasperated response to Maggie’s third election victory, but believes his unfiltered approach got the better of him: “Using the word “Advertising” in the film was a mistake; that wasn’t what it was about… It shouldn’t have been called that because it primed the audience or critic or whoever was looking at it to think that this was some maniac raving about advertising, and it wasn’t. I don’t give a fuck about advertising. For me it was more like Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell said Big Brother will watch you, and the truth is we watch it. We come in every night with our gourmet supper from Marks & Spencer, stick it in the microwave, dump arse on the couch, and sit there of our own free will being told by someone with a vested interest what’s going on out there”. Indeed, what he’s talking about, as a snapshot of where we are as a society, is – again – very similar to Fincher’s approach with Fight Club a decade later, only he managed to do it in an accessible way (even if it was only in its home media afterlife, and with a good portion of the audience – purportedly – getting the wrong end of the stick).


Bagley: I don’t need to look at the market research. I’ve lived with thirteen-and-a-half million housewives for fifteen years and I know everything about them!

Robinson is similarly acute – if perhaps a littleover self-critical – in recognising what works, noting “There are two big speeches in Advertising, one at the beginning and one at the end, and you may as well go home after his opening speech, where he talks about advertising. It’s the best part of the film, I think”. That’s not so far from accurate, although as I’ve said, I think the opening third is mostly pretty good. I hadn’t revisited the picture in near enough a couple of decades, and I remembered it much more highly, perhaps forgiving it its hammer-to-crack-a-nut approach because I was responding to the REG performance, whom I believed could do no wrong at one point, even though that was obviously notthe case even then. Bagley’s tirade on selling Nosh Pot – clearly referencing Pot Noodle – has the delight of Grant tearing into great vitriolic dialogue (“Whatever it is, sell it. And if you want to stay in advertising, by God, you’d better learn that!”).


Bagley: Compared to this, piles was a birthday present!

A subsequent lunch between Bagley and his wife finds Robinson indulging cheap but nevertheless amusing tried-and-tested comedy of misunderstanding – “I did not have a terrible time with piles!” exclaims Bagley of a previous account, to the concerned look of fellow patrons. Later, Bagley delights in offending a selection of train passengers, one a priest, as he announces “I’m an expert on tits. Tits and peanut butter. I’m also an expert drug pusher. I’ve been pushing drugs for twenty years”. And “I’ve had an octopus squatting on my brain for a fortnight” is a line worthy of Withnail himself. The subsequent dinner party, featuring his tirade against the aforementioned Penny is also REG in full flow (“What rot. Why shouldn’t we have a row?”; “I’ve had a drink, thank you, and now I’m going to have another”).


Bagley: They’re cutting down jungles to breed hamburgers, turning the whole world into a carpark.

It’s once Bagley no longer has the courage of his convictions that the picture begins to drag. The boil conceit is weak – and the effects less than stellar; Bruce Campbell carried off the two-headed nemesis thing much better a couple of years later in Army of Darkness – the cartoon bluebirds are a nice idea, but as Robinson tells it they couldn’t afford the animation so they were unable to use them throughout and the point was lost (as it is, it looks like they’ve fluttered in from the same year’s Fletch Lives!) Parts of Advertising feel like an over-extended but undercooked Comic Strip Presents, so blunt is the instrument. 


Robinson places no restriction on himself in respect of content, and as a result he encourages an ungainly free for all, from the bizarre (“My grandfather was caught molesting a wallaby in a private zoo in 1979”) to the environmental (“In 25 years, the Brazilians will be fixing oxygen prices in exactly the same way as the Arabs fixed the price of oil”) to the apocalyptic (“We put an added ingredient in bombs these days. It’s called peace”). Robinson opined that the picture would have turned out better if Handmade hadn’t cut a million off the budget, saying he wanted to evoke the expense of a Hugh Hudson film in terms of cinematography at key points. Maybe, but I’m not entirely convinced it would have made a substantial difference.


Admittedly, the final speech (“The world is one magnificent fucking shop”) is a good one, originally intended to end the second act, and doesemploy something of the visual panache Robinson was talking about, Bagley presiding over a new Jerusalem atop a hill to the strains of Holst’s Jupiter Suite, but it’s still something of a shrug to conclude the picture on, since we haven’t actually moved anywhere in ninety minutes. Not really. Of the director’s four pictures, I would probably have had this as the runner up before this viewing. Now it might be trailing the pack. Which reminds me, I need to give Jennifer 8 another look…




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism