There are a few bright moments punctuating HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE based the memoir of the same name by Toby Young. Very few. And all of them courtesy of its star, Simon Pegg, a man of great comedic gifts who finds himself in a vehicle greatly unworthy of them.
Pegg plays Sydney Young, a small-time gadfly journalist who is suddenly whisked from his alternative magazine in London to the big-time at Sharp Magazine in New York. His dreams of breaking into the big-time, however, are brought up short when the editor-in chief who hired him, Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges) relegates him to captioning photos for its jumped-up gossip column. That he is also reports to the woman whose handwritten journal he ruined while otherwise irking her in a bar the previous evening doesn’t help. She’s Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst) and, as with so many characters in this film, her personality is hazy rather than something that is sharply defined. Does she find Sydney quirky and irritating? Does she find him quirky and adorable? For that matter, why did Clayton hire him when he spends so much time regarding his new employee in much the same way one regards the accident one’s pet has made on one’s new carpet? Such questions are never answered. Fortunately, there is the consistency and sheer guilty pleasure of Danny Huston, elegant and evil as a scheming editor and of Gillian Anderson as a cool and lethally effective and deliciously sociopathic publicity flack with a knack for making stars out of attractive detritus like a pretentious yet and talentless director (Max Minghella), or a toothsome ingénue (mope-ish Megan Fox). It’s the latter, a dim-bulb proto-star, that captivates Sydney enough to make him forget his generally snarky attitude towards dim-bulb proto-stars and nudge him along the fast track to Armani suits and other accoutrements of success by learning to play the game.
This shopworn tale of a journalist who loses his soul to the media-manufactured fame game is too flat to be satire, too earnest to be a farce, and too obvious to be entertaining. Toss in an uneven tone leaping fearlessly from the silly to the maudlin and you have the makings of an irritating two hours or so. Pegg is manic and willing but the material is so thin and so all over the map that he even his preternatural sense of timing and fairly credible dramatic efforts only go so far. Sydney attempts to crash an A-list party with a pig that proceeds to disgrace itself on one of the guest, Sydney wrestles madly with a murderous set of Venetian blinds (perhaps the high point of the film and only five seconds long, alas), later Sydney has a sensitive yet gut-wrenching chat with his father (Bill Patterson) who, of course, turns up on his New York doorstep all the way from England. As for any revelations about the hollowness of fame or the emptiness of success on someone else’s terms, this flick seems to think it is the first cinematic effort to have noticed that sort of thing.
Cloying where it should be cutting, vague where it should be vicious, HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE fails to deliver anything even remotely original (Venetian blinds not withstanding), and it fails to deliver it with a spectacular lack of energy.