DVD Review: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2008)

Annoying You Into Hysterics
On DVD 2/17/09

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The dumbing down of the media has been a sad trend for a long while. And more recently it's taken shape via the same "mouth breathing" critics who pose for photos with celebrities that Roger Ebert warned against in his wise and witty list of rules for those in the profession to the recent announcement that the one man hype and buzz machine Ben Lyons was named the most hated critic in America.

Namely, journalism has been on a downward slide for roughly a decade and former pop culture magazines like the lauded Rolling Stone and film fan favorite Entertainment Weekly have begun moving into Tiger Beat and Bop Magazine territory filling pages with gossip and an emphasis on tween friendly items. Of course, this includes the massive disappointment for Juno enthusiasts everywhere that the former Minnesota stripper turned Oscar winner turned EW columnist Diablo Cody checked her intellect at the door and has begun penning a column that reads like a nonsensical and arrogant "Dear Diary" entry with topics mostly consisting of herself, guest-starring on 90210 and her unabashed love of New Kids on the Block.

While Rolling Stone is still the go-to source for some truly hard hitting political journalism (often by writers such as Matt Taibbi), overall, it's lost the same sting it used to have in holding up a much needed mirror to our celebrity obsessed culture. Therefore, is it any wonder that newspapers are on the decline with massive layoffs of hard-working staff members and the threat that perhaps by the end of the year, my most cherished publication-- The New York Times-- may indeed go under?

While environmentalists will breathe a happy sigh of relief that more trees won't be wasted, the fact that we won't even have certain papers and columnists to read online is disheartening as they've been made obsolete with the media's emergence of "infotainment." This finds CNN inviting users to leave comments on their anchors' blogs, get in touch with them via Facebook, MySpace or Twitter-- in a way in which the worldwide public is shaping the news by leading journalists to ask certain questions, make assumptions and otherwise neglect the integrity that previously held their work together. Social networking conversations are one thing but what is "news" is something else or at least it should be.

Yet, long before journalist Stephen Glass began faking stories for the National Review, Britain's controversial writer Toby Young left his homeland for a gig in New York, perhaps predicting this decline of Access Hollywood and speculative rumor mill news. It was in New York that Young proved that, in addition to being an utter pain, he may in fact have been ahead of his time.

Lewd, crude, rude, and filled with attitude, Young was hired away from his co-editorship of London's groundbreaking and staunchly critical, in your face magazine Modern Review by Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter in 1995. It was a disaster all the way as Young was simply unwilling to play ball with our buzz filled journalism. Yet instead of taking a high and mighty road, he took the lowest one imaginable which he chronicled in his infamous memoir, upon which Curb Your Enthusiasm director Robert Weide based this film.

Young's time spent working for both Vanity Fair and becoming a failed screenwriter were perhaps best summed up by the man who invited him from across the pond in the form of Vanity Fair's editor Carter, whom New York Times critic Manohla Dargis quoted as likening Young's short tenure to "a brief one-night stand that results in octuplets."

The octuplets remark seems especially fitting as Young was never content to just let one thing happen without knocking as many dominoes as he could down in the process. Moreover, he made a grand display of all he did including sending a stripper-gram to his sleazy superior (played in the film by Danny Huston) for stealing his story idea before realizing it was "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day."

Additionally as Roger Ebert noted, Young "blew through deadlines, vomited on people, wrecked parties, brushed with libel, suggested offensive story ideas, alienated the very celebrities he was paid to celebrate, and pulled off the neat trick of being shunned by most of the publicists in America."

Based on the memoir written by Young and turned into an engaging satirical script by screenwriter Peter Straughan-- Straughan took some of Young's most revolting and hilarious "greatest misfires" as well as a few "hits," to develop it into a contemporary plot where Toby becomes Sidney Young and Carter becomes Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges).

And this time around, he's embodied by one of my current favorite British comedic actors, Mr. Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz). A man so hilarious that even when he's leaving Thandie Newton fully pregnant on her wedding day in Run Fatboy Run, Pegg still somehow remains an underdog hero you can root for when he tries to win his lady back, thus making him the ideal choice to bring Young to life.

Fittingly he'd been Toby Young's dream version of himself and as such Pegg was actually "approached to play the role back in 2004 for a stage version," but a scheduling conflict found him having to bow out. Dubbed by Toby Young on the DVD release as "the Dudley Moore of our generation," Simon Pegg's name was the only two-word answer Robert Weide used when people approached him to ask how on Earth he was going to make the notoriously loathed Young sympathetic. And while all on the set seem to concur, honestly, you get the feeling Weide is being a tad humble as-- having been a part of Curb Your Enthusiasm for years-- by now he's a pro at finding the funny in the most despicably selfish of human behavior.

Yet, it's quite a fitting comparison to make in likening Pegg to Dudley Moore who managed to make his perpetually drunk and childish title character in Arthur, downright lovable. And although there's nothing remotely lovable about Young-- you just can't help crossing your fingers for the man that Pegg deemed is "obnoxious and slightly loathsome," but still can't hide the "bit of honey" buried within his heart. It's a heart he covers up on his first day of work wearing one of the most inappropriate t-shirts imaginable.

And, in proving he's not ready to play ball anytime soon, he alienates an actor he interviews by asking if either the character or the individual is Jewish and/or gay in one of the most appalling yet hysterical scenes of the film that goes against the kiss-ass press junket spirit. Instantly loathed by his superior Danny Huston, Gillian Anderson's controlling publicist who has everyone wrapped around her little finger, Max Minghella's overrated, and young Tarantino like director for avoiding phony small talk, Young proclaims that Con Air is the best movie ever made. And in doing so, he nonetheless manages to intrigue his new cute colleague Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst) despite his hilarious satirical story pitches that he write a piece about Paris Hilton as though she were a near Greta Garbo-like recluse.

However, although they develop a camaraderie and flirtatious friendship as she bails him out of a tight spot and he does the same for her later, as soon as he sets eyes on the gorgeous sexpot ingenue Megan Fox (hired by Weide actually before Transformers made her a superstar) who saunters in an evening gown across a pool and seduces a la Angelina Jolie, he begins to change everything about himself to get close to Fox's Sophie Maes. And in landing Maes, he crosses so many lines that he can't even see the lines he'd set for himself when he first became a writer anymore.

The film was mostly panned by critics who may have felt as though the film and its subject were hitting a little too close to the nerve of what celeb driven media coverage has become. Despite this, I must admit that it was a genuinely entertaining surprise aside from its awful trailer and poor advertising campaign that tried to masquerade the film more in the vein of Judd Apatow and less like Barry Levinson's 2008 Hollywood satire What Just Happened (also based on a memoir).

Additionally, much better than some of 2008's super-hyped films with multi-million dollar ad-campaigns, it was sadly another one of those movies just sort of dumped in the fall when theatres were already over-crowded. However, I can only hope viewers will give it a chance despite the misleading trailer and the fact that, perhaps like fellow Brit Ricky Gervais in the other fall charmer Ghost Town (which is downright Capraesque next to this one), possibly Pegg has yet to be recognizable to mainstream audiences.

And while you can't exactly root for Sidney Young-- much like Weide's HBO curmudgeon Larry David-- you don't exactly want to root against him either. Filled with a cool, contemporary soundtrack-- intriguingly the '95 events have been now set into an even more unrealistic Hollywood time of constant text messaging and YouTube. Weide and screenwriter Straughan's update of Alienate is a fervent reminder that-- although not to the extreme of Mr. Sidney or Toby Young-- possibly what journalism needs right now is less celebrity worship or mushy, "OMFG, I starred on 90210" Tiger Beat styled columns. And in their place, we deserve more work that holds those responsible for pop culture accountable by kicking them off those pedestals that find young girls starving themselves in emulation.

Although, to this end, I'd suggest to emulate Young in using a pen, in lieu of embracing Young's penchant for vomit, party crashing, and bringing an animal to a film event in the hopes of gaining admission. But, something tells me that even then, the story would be much better than watching Twitter, Facebook, or MySpace messages fill up the bottom of a CNN screen as the anchors turn our carefully chosen thoughts into news.