How to Lose Friends & Alienate People—the theatrical feature debut of TV director Robert B. Weide (Curb Your Enthusiasm)—is such a sweet-natured little movie with so many clever touches and such winning performances from Simon Pegg and Kirsten Dunst that I really wish I could like it more than I do. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to work up the enthusiasm, because the sum of the movie’s parts is somehow much less than its individual components. In fact, I can think of few movies that had so many agreeable aspects that so evaporated from my mind in a matter of under two days. Good grief, twice I forgot that this review was even on my list this week—that’s not good (though I wish this had been true of Beverly Hills Chihuahua).
The film traces the amazingly inelegant rise of a bumptious, boorish, British journalist, Sidney Young (Simon Pegg), who gets tapped by a glossy U.S. celebrity magazine, Sharps. Abandoning his own failing film/pop-culture criticism magazine in favor of this offer, Sidney arrives in New York City full of bravado and bad ideas—and seems totally oblivious to the fact that the man who hired him, Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), did so in a passing fit of nostalgia for his own over-the-top youthful arrogance. (The fact that Harding’s office is dominated by a poster for Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt speaks volumes about his past, the way he handles people and his own self-dissatisfaction.) Naturally, things don’t go well for Sidney.
He immediately gets off on the wrong foot with coworker Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst) and his immediate boss, Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston in full sleaze-ball mode), and he pretty much stays there thanks to his uncontrollable urge to be a lout. Sidney’s idea is that he’s a firebrand journalist, out to tell the uncomfortable truth about the celebrities he’s to write about. He doesn’t realize that the nature of Sharps is to play ball with the celebrities’ publicists—big-name interviews and exclusives in exchange for positive spins and even final approval of the copy. Even when he does realize it, he won’t accept it. It’s amazing he keeps his job long enough to get the chance to sell out, which, of course, is the inevitable second-act climax of the film. The third act, naturally, will cover him rediscovering himself.
The problem with all this is that the story isn’t a lot more than a knockoff of The Devil Wears Prada (2006)—with a somewhat more satisfying (or at least bigger) self-reclamation and a screenplay that’s at least 75 percent inferior in terms of wit and bite and, for that matter, characterization. Prada offered a number of fully formed characters. This film offers an abundance of sketched-in ones and relies too much on one or two hints at the depths hidden by their facades. Players like Pegg and Dunst—and to a lesser degree Bridges—are able to compensate by their performances and innate likeability. Others—the talent-challenged Megan Fox (Transformers), for example—do little more than take up space. Nice character turns by Miriam Margolyes as Sidney’s landlady and Bill Paterson (Miss Potter) as his father help, as does a catty caricature of a publicist from Gillian Anderson. But none of it is enough.
Director Weide keeps it moving nicely, but it seems he has only one directorial flourish: moving from scene to scene as if the film was riding up and down in an elevator. It’s a pretty nice flourish, but it wears out its novelty value pretty fast. Otherwise, the direction is largely of the utilitarian nature, which would be fine if the script were better, but it isn’t.
What you end up with are two stars with remarkable chemistry (who would have thought?) in a movie that’s not worthy of them, but which is still fairly pleasant in a time-killing way. How to Lose Friends is a bit like a variant on the number-five dinner on a Chinese restaurant menu: Enjoyable enough at the time, but 30 minutes later you don’t remember what you’ve eaten. Rated R for language, some graphic nudity and brief drug material.