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How to Get Ahead in Advertising

How to Get Ahead in Advertising(1988)


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Both fiction and movies have long mocked the advertising industry, and well they might - advertising exploits the forms and functions of culture like a tapeworm uses a G.I. tract. No one film has shouldered the cannon quite like Bruce Robinson's How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and the vibrant acidity of the film, targeted as it was at Reagan-Thatcher-era commercialism, still satisfies. A brief light in the resurgence of British cinema in the '80s (when Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Peter Greenaway and Terence Davies grabbed global recognition), Robinson began as an actor, making a splash as Benvolio in Franco Zefferelli's hit Romeo and Juliet (1968), but eventually began writing instead, getting Oscar®-nominated for The Killing Fields and, in 1987, attaining more or less instant cult status writing and directing the semi-autobiographical Withnail & I, an oddly shaped comedy about two unemployed actors and their Herculean drug and booze consumption. New to DVD (long after the 2001 Criterion edition has fallen out of print), How to Get Ahead may be Robinson's definitive statement, a manic satire that brilliantly hones the amorality of an entire industry down to the trials of a single self-destructing man, and, more specifically, to a single, troublesome pimple.

It's not just any "boil" (in Brit parlance), popping up on the shoulder of one Denis Bimbleby Bagley (Richard E. Grant), but a massive pustule that eventually grows a face, a voice, and a point of view. As scenarios go, it's so baldly metaphorical it's nearly Dantean, or Kafka turned dermatological, or David Cronenberg's gross-out body horror played for broad laughs. Bagley is of course engaged to write a commercial for a pimple cream he knows doesn't work, and the cognitive dissonance precipitates a full-bore nervous breakdown, eventually manifesting physically as The Boil (voiced by Robinson), whose bottomless cynicism and right-wing bitterness aims to settle all of Bagley's interior conflicts and eventually replace him, or his head anyway, as the living spirit of consumerist manipulation and evil.

Honestly, Robinson's movie is a wicked lark, with teeth, but it might not have flown without Grant. Essentially discovered by Robinson for Withnail, Grant was immediately a unique species of character actor, a demonic, laser-eyed, bone-thin demiurge with the face of a vampire, the hapless zeal of a sugar-hopped grade-schooler, and the hyper-enunciated vocal delivery of a Shakespearean thespian teetering on the brink of dementia. Other actors have little chance at dominating the room when Grant is in sight; just watch him in the recent Hemingway's Garden of Eden, appearing briefly as a cynical womanizer and effortlessly erasing the rest of the cast. In Robinson's film, he is the central and only attraction, crazily snarling through the scenario in varying degrees of hysteria, and breathlessly bullet-training through Robinson's dialogue, which as dense as it is maniacally hilarious. Grant always seems on the verge of overplaying his hand, such is his peculiar, angular momentum, but you look at his bird-of-prey eyes, and you never doubt his conviction. Grant's Denis is a formidable creation - monstrously narcissistic and melting down before our eyes - but he's also advertising incarnate, a paradigm of an industry that runs on amoral ego and high-octane absurdity until it very often attains a state of self-destructive insanity.

Robinson's touch is disarming - he gets laughs where no one else would look. At one point Denis has encased his head in a box so as to attain privacy from The Boil, ranting to his long-suffering wife (Rachel Ward, impeccably lovely here as she was throughout the '80s), as she feigns ordinariness: "Don't pretend you haven't noticed my cardboard box, Julia, because I know you have!" Later, Denis and The Boil argue professionally, with Denis defending himself against the charge of communism by saying he'd want to give consumers "the choice of something better," say, trains instead of cars. "Trains?" growls The Boil, "Trains are no good, they're old fashioned. I hate trains, they're rotten." "Only because they don't consume," Denis hisses back, "only because they were already there and don't eat up more and more and more. That's why you hate them. That's why government hates them. That's why they're old fashioned and rotten." The Boil spits back, "You commies don't half-talk a lot of shit."

How to Get Ahead in Advertising suffers a bit from a strangely overlit, pink-&-orange set design and some of the aerosoled-lens cinematography that made the '80s so difficult to endure. Robinson is obviously more of a natural scriptsmith than a visual artist, and his film is carried by the zest of the screenplay and the performances. Robinson, as far as we know, never did time in the conceptual pits of advertising, but his film nails down its modern milieu and twisted logic soundly. The dissonance Denis experiences derives from a simple realization, pronounced in this film for perhaps the first time: that consumerism and advertising do not seek to satisfy desires, but instead to keep those consumer desires perpetually unsatisfied. Why wouldn't such a purpose drive an intelligent man mad? Robinson had a few more screenplays turned into half-successful films in the '90s, and then went silent for the last decade, opting to write fiction instead. Currently, he is wrapping up a Johnny Depp-starring adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary, slated for release this year, and it might be the companion film Withnail & I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising have been waiting for all these years.

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by Michael Atkinson