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

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

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.

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

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

You’d be surprised how many intersectional planes of untethered consciousness exist.

Moon Knight (2022) (SPOILERS) Now, this is an interesting one. Not because it’s very good – Phase IV MCU? Hah! – but because it presents its angle on the “superhero” ethos in an almost entirely unexpurgated, unsoftened way. Here is a character explicitly formed through the procedures utilised by trauma-based mind control, who has developed alters – of which he has been, and some of which he remains, unaware – and undergone training/employment in the military and private mercenary sectors (common for MKUltra candidates, per Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill ). And then, he’s possessed by what he believes to be a god in order to carry out acts of extreme violence. So just the sort of thing that’s good, family, DisneyPlus+ viewing.