How to Get Ahead in Advertising

Movie Information

How to Get Ahead in Advertising, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.
Genre: Satirical Comedy
Director: Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I)
Starring: Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward, Richard Wilson, Jacqueline Tong, John Shrapnel, Susan Wooldridge
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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5 thoughts on “How to Get Ahead in Advertising

  1. I agree with you Ken. This film and WITHNAIL AND I are the best one/two punches from any director of the 1980s (Bruce Robinson). Apparently WITHNAIL has become a right of passage for Brits in college. Many know every line.

    After a LONG absence from directing, Robinson is making RUM PUNCH. If he’s still got his mojo, he might be able to pull it off.

  2. Jim Shura

    It must have been really hard to review this film.

    I’ve tried to convince umpteen people to see it. The more I tell, the less likely they are to rent it. It’s all in the execution.

  3. Ken Hanke

    It’s the sort of movie where the idea is so bizarre — a talking boil? — that it either sells itself to you out of curiosity, or you dismiss it out of hand. I’ll be interested to hear what the turnout is like — and the reaction.

    Robinson’s had a very odd career. He started out acting — you can see him Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers — and then shifted gears to filmmaking later. The art house success of these two got him a Hollywood contract so he came to the US and made a pretty good (of too long) thriller called Jennifer 8, which had none of the quirkiness of his two Brit pictures and which died at the box office. Then he co-wrote the underrated In Dreams with Neil Jordan. That also tanked pretty badly. Then some TV work in Britain and nothing. Fingers crossed for The Rum Diary.

  4. I’ve tried to convince umpteen people to see it. The more I tell, the less likely they are to rent it. It’s all in the execution.

    It’s been a good solid renter for us. I will always have it in one of our picks section so that helps to make up peoples’ minds.

    There must have been something on the internet about WITHNAIL, because I’m seeing a huge upturn on that title. Maybe the time is right for a Robinson revival.

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