George Harrison’s Handmade Films had unusually good luck with Bruce Robinson’s debut film, the autobiographical Withnail & I (1987). So it wasn’t very surprising when Harrison and company said yes to Robinson’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), especially since it would also feature Withnail star Richard E. Grant. What they got was one of the strangest, most outrageous, most bitter, irreverent and bitingly funny satires the movies ever offered. It was slicker than Withnail and more ambitious, and if it didn’t duplicate the earlier film’s cult success, it was sufficient to land Robinson a Hollywood offer. (That he would have been better advised to stay in England is another story.)
Though How to Get Ahead in Advertising is clearly inspired in part by Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget What’s’name (1967), it’s very much its own film. It’s the tale of Dennis Dimbleby Bagley (Grant), a sharp advertising man who so works himself up over an acne cream that he develops a boil on his neck. But is it a boil? It starts taking on human features and talks (at least according to Bagley and what we see and hear). And it eventually becomes obvious that it looks just like Bagley and starts taking over his life. The boil is rude, foul-mouthed and cynical—everything that Bagley hates about himself. The dilemma becomes acute when the suddenly head-sized boil is surgically removed—and the wrong head is left, turning Bagley into a monstrous parody of himself. The film never quite tips its hand as to how much is fantasy and how much is really happening, which adds to its wit. Constantly surprising, very funny and unrelentingly bleak, Advertising is also beautifully creative. Robinson’s use on the soundtrack of Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony and the “Jupiter” section of Gustav Holst’s The Planets is stunning—with a very strange rendition of Pete Townshend’s “My Generation” not far behind. Really, one of the best film’s of the 1980s.