LIST CANDIDATE: HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989)

How to Get Ahead in Advertising has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this post.

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FEATURING: , Rachel Ward, Richard Wilson

PLOT: A young hotshot ad exec begins to crack from stress when he has difficulty coming up with a campaign for pimple cream; compounding his problems, he grows a boil on his neck that gradually develops a face, and a nasty personality.

Still from How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  The talking boil, the cracked Bagley tossing thawed chickens into the toilet wearing only an apron, and a few other weird surprises.  What works against Advertising‘s weirdness is that the film’s bizarro bits are all part of a perfectly clear and rational satirical plan.

COMMENTS:  Ad exec Dennis Bagley develops the mother of all zits in this blackheaded black comedy: does he need a dermatologist, or a psychologist?  He’s up against a deadline to design an ad campaign for a pimple cream account, and he’s obstructed.  “I can’t get a handle on boils,” he explains.  “Compared to this, piles were a birthday present… so was dandruff!”  Brilliantly portrayed by an acerbic and unhinged Richard E. Grant, Bagley is a man on the edge from the moment we meet him. He delivers an authoritative, amoral address to junior execs delighting in the dieting-reward-guilt dynamic that keeps women buying unwholesome food and stressing the importance of marketing to “she who fills her basket;” but in private, his advertiser’s block is driving him to knock back highballs in his office and nearly break down into quivering mass at lunch with his beautiful wife Julia (Ward).  On a fateful train ride home for a weekend of fretting over the acne campaign, frazzled Bagley has an epiphany about the pervasiveness of the advertising/propaganda mentality while listening to strangers discuss a sensational newspaper account of a drug orgy, and launches into the first of many entertainingly deranged rants.  By the next morning Bagley has gone completely off his rocker: he’s running around the house nude except for an apron, thawing frozen chickens in the bathtub and trying to rid the homestead of everything connected to advertising.  But, to his distress, he’s also developed a rather nasty and surprisingly painful pimple on his neck, one that keeps growing and getting worse.  And after a dream where a pair of pink and blue birds fresh off the set of Song of the South flit about his room devising a plan to sell burglar alarms, he wakes to discover that that the boil has grown and developed a voice, and—worse—an embryonic face.

That’s just the first act.  The remainder of Advertising focuses on Bagley’s contentious relationship with the obstinate zit, setting up a string of sly set pieces and pedantic anti-consumerism speeches.  An effective running joke has the boil constantly interjecting advertising slogans or crude insults (“shut up, you cynical old anus!”) into Bagley’s conversations; it sounds like a sitcom level gag, but the script integrates the gag with wit. There’s an extended sequence where the boil only speaks when Julia’s back is turned or Bagley’s head is under the table; the husband and wife argue about whether the boil is deliberately taking advantage of these opportunities to pipe up, or whether it’s the delusional ad-man who is.  (The script never directly reveals whether the chatty carbuncle truly has a separate existence; for symbolic and satirical purposes, it doesn’t matter).  Just as the dramatic possibilities of a man arguing with his own pimple seem about ready to play themselves out, the script throws in a wicked twist that rearranges the power balance.  A droll sequence near the end capitalizes on the movie’s switch of fortunes by synchronizing a new conversation on top of an older one.  The script is riddled with clever touches like this, which, together with the biting black humor and the extra appendage make it play like a smarter, more focused, and less weird and tasteless precursor to 1991’s The Dark Backward.

Critics’ main objection to the film was that it’s too talky and unsubtle (to the point of being preachy). It substitutes speechifying for action.  Some of the dialogue seems to stem from the author’s private obsessions (he repeats a metaphor equating trains with good, communal socialism and cars with bad, selfish capitalism, even though it clunked the first time round).  In his idealistic incarnation, Bagley often seems paranoid and cranky rather than incisive: he suggests newspapers demonize marijuana because they see it as a threat to cigarette ad revenue, and in a long rant (delivered with his head encased in a cardboard box) he frets that corporations plot to cut down forests so they can charge for oxygen.  The fact that the film climaxes with another long monologue—Bagley riding through the verdant English countryside on a horse, discussing the “wonderful” products that would disappear if not for automobiles (including “tinned spaghetti and baked beans with six frankfurters”)—only reinforces that impression.  It’s true that Robinson repeatedly violates the “show, don’t tell” axiom (as did Shakespeare), but in his defense, on Advertising he was in the zone when it came to dialogue.  The film is packed with quotable quips: “that suppurating, fat squirting little heart attack traditionally known as the British sausage,” “I’ve had an octopus squatting on my brain for a fortnight,” “my grandfather was caught molesting a wallaby in a private zoo in 1919.”  When the psychiatrist asks him if he’s been masturbating much, he replies “Constantly! I’ve got a talking boil on my neck, what would you do?”  The boil is alternatively referred to as “a shanker yacking on [my] neck” or a “smutty Marxist carbunkle.”

Most of these lines are given acid deliveries by an inspired Grant.  As Bagley, he gets to play a character who at various times is bitingly self-assured, idealistic, coldly cynical, or coming apart at the seams, and relishes the opportunity.  Grant races about the set and delivering a variety of rants ranging from incisive to wittily cruel to delusional, and he finds the proper tone of comic exaggeration whether the script requires him to be withering or pathetic.  Grant’s performance, combined with the rapid fire Brit wit that trips from his lashing tongue and the absorbing tidbits of weirdness, sweep away all the objections about Advertising‘s sententious socialist moralizing.

Writer/director Bruce Robinson began his movie career as an actor, but achieved greater success when he switched to screenwriting, notching an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of The Killing Fields (1984). In 1987 he produced the black comedy Withnail & I, starring Richard E. Grant in a title role, about an alcoholic out-of-work actor. The movie was a critical and cult success. Like Withnail, Advertising was produced and distributed by George Harrison’s Handmade Films (sometime patrons of the weird ever since funding Time Bandits); unfortunately, this film received mixed reviews and made little impact on its theatrical release. Advertising retained enough partisans to be briefly released by the Criterion Collection in 2001; that edition quickly fell out of print, however. MGM snapped up the rights in 2003, but again the movie sold poorly and rights lapsed. The latest, bare-bones DVD release came courtesy of Image Entertainment in January 2011; hopefully, the film will stay in print the third time around. It deserves a larger audience than it has found.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bruce Robinson… goes off on a new lunatic tangent in his latest comedy, ‘How to Get Ahead in Advertising,’ an engaging if slightly overstretched combination of satire, science-fiction, Freud and domestic farce.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)