215. HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989)

BAGLEY: Everything I do is rational.

JULIA: Why have you put chickens down the lavatory?

BAGLEY: To thaw them before dismemberment.

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Rachel Ward, Richard Wilson, Bruce Robinson (voice)

PLOT: Dennis Dimbleby Bagley is an unscrupulous advertising executive, but he finds himself blocked while trying to come up with a campaign to sell pimple cream. The stress leads him to combination epiphany and mental breakdown, and he decides to renounce hypocrisy and manipulation and retire from marketing. The internal strife, however, has caused a boil to form on his neck; and that pustule then forms a face, and a voice, and a personality that’s even nastier than the old Bagley…

Still from How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Bruce Robinson began his career as a struggling actor, but found greater success when he turned to screenwriting and directing. His first script, The Killing Fields, was nominated for an Oscar in 1984. His first film as director, 1987’s Withnail & I, was a semi-autobiographical story of two poor, hard-drinking actors, also starring Richard E. Grant; it became a cult hit. How to Get Ahead in Advertising was his second feature film, but did not replicate the success of Withnail.
  • Robinson (uncredited) provides the voice of the boil.
  • Advertising was produced by George Harrison’s Handmade Films, who also produced Monty Python films and the Certified Weird Time Bandits.
  • The London Sunday-Times gave away free copies of the DVD as a promotion in 2006.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, the fetuslike boil-with-a-face peering out from Bagley’s executive neck.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Disney birds; chatty chancre; notice his cardboard box?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: How to Get Ahead in Advertising grows organically from that greatest fertilizer of weird films: obsession. Writer/director Bruce Robinson has Something to Say, and he is not going to let taste, subtlety, or realism get in the way of him saying it. The movie is completely committed to its bizarre two-headed premise, and star Grant gladly goes over the top for his director, literally baring his buttocks while wearing an apron and stuffing frozen chickens in his toilet.


Original trailer for How to Get Ahead in Advertising

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 complains. “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 break down 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 it with wit. There’s an extended sequence where the growth 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 whose speaking. (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 tasteless precursor to 1991’s extra-hand black comedy The Dark Backward.

Critics’ main objection to the film has been that it’s too talky and unsubtle (to the point of being preachy). It substitutes oratory 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 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 chancre yacking on [my] neck” or a “smutty Marxist carbuncle.”

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. Imagine a wild-eyed Nic Cage ranting in the Queen’s English and you’ll get some idea of the thespianship on display. 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.

All of this makes it hard to understand why Advertising hasn’t found a bigger cult audience. Suffused with obsessive passion, it boasts a quotable script, an over-the-top performance, and unexplained cartoon birds flitting about—all of the features that should attract the adoration of a certain breed of adventurous moviegoer. At the time of its release, it may have been too strange for average audiences, and disappointingly fantastic to fans hoping for another Withnail, but today it seems overdue for a reappraisal and revival. Most of the original criticisms revolve around the film being  too broad, obvious and expository. Such objections only matter if we judge Advertising by the standards of traditional satire; if we switch paradigms and think of it instead as a midnight movie, new possibilities for appreciating its excesses appear.

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)

“It vaults over rationality and tidy manners, over taste and proportion and, for that matter, the rules of dramatic structure. It’s nuts, but nuts to an end.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“…one of the strangest, most outrageous, most bitter, irreverent and bitingly funny satires the movies ever offered. “–Ken Hanke, Asheville Mountain Xpress (2009 screening)

IMDB LINK: How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

How to Get Ahead in Advertising – Film critic Stanley Kauffman’s essay on the film, from the out-of-print Criterion Collection edition

LIST CANDIDATE: HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989) – This site’s initial review of the film

DVD INFO: Although the movie flopped on release, Advertising earned enough partisans to justify a brief release from the Criterion Collection in 2001. That edition (which, uncharacteristically, had no special features) quickly fell out of print. 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 (buy) in January 2011; hopefully, the film will stay in print the third time around. (Even better, Criterion could reacquire the rights and do the release right this time).

One thought on “215. HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989)”

  1. Glad this is finally getting the CW* nod. It’s a testament to Mr Grant’s acting prowess that Bagley is made believable, but nonetheless this film stands a fine example of the kind of thing I feel this website was created to promote.

    *: Not, as you may hope, the nod from the television station, but “C-ertified W-ierd”. Though, a proper CW channel might be a neat idea…

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