Movie version of publishing-giant tale softens the blow
Minus its glossy pages and Annie Liebowitz photographs, Vanity Fair isn’t much different than the notorious tabloids in its ability to anoint, exploit and eventually dispose of celebrities.
As Barack Obama would say, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig. But don’t tell that to editor Graydon Carter, he of the perpetual bad-hair day. He believes his chi-chi mag is the epitome of class.
Or at least that’s how fired Vanity Fair reporter Toby Young remembers Carter, labeling him a sellout in his snarky tell-all “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.”
Disgruntled employee or not, Young’s book was lacerating and funny in revealing a publishing giant that was little more than a pimp for the entertainment industry. Even funnier were the transplanted Brit’s self-deprecations, as he freely mocked his own naivety in trying to meld his Fleet Street instincts with the more staid sensibilities of his American employers.
Where the book was uncompromising, the film version starring Simon Pegg as Young is a disappointing punch-puller that awkwardly attempts to poke fun at Vanity Fair (renamed Sharp for legal reasons), but never enough to compromise MGM’s intimate relationship with one of its chief enablers.
It’s diluted to the point of inanity, but remains marginally entertaining on the strength of yet another terrific performance by Pegg (“Hot Fuzz”) and a solid supporting cast topped by Kirsten Dunst, Gillian Anderson and a perfectly smug, badly coifed Jeff Bridges as Graydon Carter’s effigy, Clayton Harding.
They keep the story moving, but you can’t help cursing the imbecilic decision to shoehorn Young’s satire into the formulaic constructs of a romantic comedy, especially one afflicted with acute ADD.
The film is literally all over the map with subplot stacked upon subplot, none of them satisfyingly fleshed out by screenwriter Peter Straughan (“Sixty Six”) and director Robert Weide (HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”).
The pair deal almost entirely in clichés and stereotypes in chronicling how Young (named Sidney here instead of Toby) was recruited in London, assigned to New York and placed on the rag’s celebrity gossip beat.
What ensues is a fairly familiar fish-out-of-the-water tale where cultural and ethical differences clash and rain down disaster.
Pegg flawlessly facilitates the numerous shifts in style and tone with his high quotient of charisma and likeability to prevent Sidney’s often-boorish antics from blooming into a major annoyance.
His grandest gift, though, is his ability to be thoroughly believable as an unlikely romantic interest for both Dunst (badly cast and poorly used), as his immediate supervisor at Sharp, and Megan Fox (the vapid hottie from “Transformers”), as a breathy young actress oozing sexuality.
Surprisingly, it’s those romantic aspects of what evolves into a weird triangle that give “How to Lose Friends” most of its oomph. Well, that and Gillian Anderson as Fox’s barracuda of a manager.
But they are in service of a wan story that cries out for a darker, edgier take on the hypocrisy of a press that clings to a false sense of integrity, as it unfairly coddles the superstars (Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, etc.) and gleefully trashes the hangers on (Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton) and the washed up (Michael Jackson, Ryan O’Neal).
After all, that’s what “Friends” – the novel – was for.
HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS & ALIENATE PEOPLE
(PG-13) Cast includes Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst, Jeff Bridges, Danny Huston, Gillian Anderson and Megan Fox. Directed by Robert Weide.
Reach Al Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org.