HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Friday, January 21, 2011


A cautionary tale disguised as a comedy, HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989) makes its sometimes preachy message easier to swallow by mixing it with cutting humor and nightmarish fantasy. 

Advertising ace Dennis Bagley (Richard E. Grant) is a master at selling the public what it doesn't need until the task of coming up with a campaign for a boil cream (pimple cream to us Yanks) stops him dead in his tracks.  While agonizing over an effective angle, it occurs to him that he's not selling boil cream, which doesn't work--he's selling gullible teens the false hope that it will work.  He then begins to realize how the government conspires with this same sort of advertising to brainwash the public regarding more vital concerns. 

Bagley is wonderfully rude, arrogant, and argumentive in the early scenes.  There's a wonderful dinner party exchange between him and an overweight feminist Vegan in which he accuses her of secretly eating meat, or at least eels loaded with estrogen that's flooding the oceans due to so many women being on the pill.  He also runs a trio of dignified gentlemen off a commuter train (bellowing "What do you know about God, you wire-haired old Mick!" at an elderly priest) after berating them over a lurid newspaper story they've been slavering over.

These delightful altercations spring up out of nowhere thanks to Bagley's refined hostility being unleashed at anyone he regards as gullible sheep falling for precisely the same deceptive nonsense he himself is complicit in churning out.  Another funny scene occurs as the fed-up Bagley attempts to resign from the game as his disaffected boss carries on an entirely different conversation on his headset telephone.  For me, most of the real belly laughs occur during this early part of the film, before the story veers off on a weirder and more complicated tangent.

With boils on the brain, the final indignity occurs when a huge, inflamed one sprouts on Bagley's neck, then suddenly grows a face and starts talking to him.  As Richard E. Grant's performance grows bigger and more deranged by the minute, so does the interloping boil, until we realize that it represents the evil side which the newly-enlightened Bagley is trying to suppress.  While he may only be imagining it all, the desperate struggle between the conflicting halves of his personality becomes a genuine battle for control. 

Grant handles the role with manic intensity as he goes from unrepentent cynic to born-again crusader to freaked-out mental case and back again.  As she did opposite Steve Martin in DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID, the beautiful Rachel Ward (as Bagley's wife, Julia) displays a knack for playing straight woman to a flamboyantly comic leading man.  Both are adept at handling the story's gradual shift from absurd comedy to surprisingly sober drama while keeping their characters consistent. 

The dialogue by writer-director Bruce Robinson (who wrote 1984's THE KILLING FIELDS) is a sharply funny combination of British drollery and over-the-top farce, and it comes fast and furious when Grant gets wound up.  You have to get into the spirit of things to appreciate much of it--I can imagine some people wondering what the heck I was guffawing about during some scenes.  ("My grandfather was caught molesting a wallaby in a private zoo in 1919" Bagley tells his psychiatrist at one point.)

Direction and editing keep things moving along at just the right pace, while certain classical pieces provide a suitable musical backdrop.  Also worthy of mention are the special make-up effects used to create that revolting little bastard growing out of the main character's neck.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.  Subtitles are in English.  The trailer is included, along with about half an hour's worth of trailers for other titles from Hand-Made Films. 

HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING is a very funny satire that makes us laugh while also making us think about how advertisers con us into buying things like cars that help destroy the forests and products that are inherently useless.  Of course, one of the other things it made me think about was whether or not the filmmakers are still driving their cars or buying their useless products.

Buy it at

No comments: