Tag Archives: Bruce Robinson

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 Continue reading 215. HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989)

CAPSULE: THE RUM DIARY (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi

PLOT: An alcoholic journalist goes to Puerto Rico where he encounters unscrupulous

Still from The Rum Diary (2011)

capitalists and bottomless mini-bars.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The confluence of three offbeat talents—-seldom seen cult auteur (How to Get Ahead in Advertising) directing quirk king Johnny Depp in an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel by gonzo godfather —produces a movie that’s far more conventional than you might have guessed.

COMMENTS:  For better or worse, it’s impossible to avoid comparing Rum Diary (unfavorably) with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The film’s producers can’t complain the comparison is unfair, because they cut a trailer that’s obviously aimed at hooking Loathing fans: it’s filled with boozy shenanigans, a bowling ball knocking down ten pin rum bottles, and Johnny Depp promising, in his best deadpan Hunter S. Thompson drawl, “all of this might sound like some crazed hallucination…”  Diary even contains a mild LSD trip sequence that sees Michael Rispoli’s tongue extend six feet in the air “like an accusatory giblet”; of course, this sixty seconds of psychedelics occupies a prime place in the marketing scheme.  There’s also a scene with a voodoo priestess who coughs up frogs—and that’s about it on the weirdness front.  The rest of the movie is a series of drunken war stories in which part-time journalist, full-time imbiber and would-be novelist Paul Kemp (Thompson’s alter-ego, played by Depp as a less manic and assured Raoul Duke) worries about “finding his voice” and flirts with joining up with the “Bastards.”  Why the Bastards (represented by real-estate developer Aaron Eckhart) are so keen to recruit horoscope writer Kemp into their venal cabal isn’t clear; corrupting idealists is what makes them Bastards, I guess.  Also not clear is what’s so darn evil about their plan to build a hotel that would supply thousands of jobs for the local populace on land previously only used for the noble purpose of naval test bombing.  Their marketing plan, which would involve Kemp slipping some favorable words into his columns, is unethical, sure, but hardly a screaming headline, page one outrage.  But the scheme’s investors smoke cigars and complain about Negros and Communists, so they are pretty clearly villainous.  Despite their wickedness, though, the only moral objections Kemp actually raises have to do with the way Eckhart treats his flighty, arm-candy lover (Amber Heard, who looks fabulous in a bikini but disappears from the movie like a neglected girlfriend).  Joining Depp, Eckhart and Heard are Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi as a couple of colorful drinking buddies (Rispoli plays his photographer role like a 1940s New York City cabbie, while Nazi-obsessed basket case Ribisi affects an annoying whine).  The trio’s wandering adventures build to a remarkable anticlimax.  None of the plot lines dangled off this tropical pier snag a catch, but Kemp/Thompson does eventually find his literary voice—too bad for us it only happens after he’s finished narrating this tale.  It’s pleasant to see Depp reprise his role as Thompson, and there are memorable lines of dialogue and set pieces (all of which find their way into the trailer).  But the movie sips at drunken insanity rather than gulping it down; it never goes four-sheets-to-the-wind crazy.  The tone of muted madness here doesn’t do justice to Thompson’s gonzo spirit.  Call it “Mild Concern and Dislike in San Juan.”

“The Rum Diary” was written by Thompson some time in the late 1950s or early 1960s but was rejected by several publishers.  Johnny Depp reportedly discovered the manuscript in Thompson’s basement while he was researching the writer’s mannerisms in preparation for his role in Fear and Loathing.  Depp encouraged Thompson to revise the lost novel; it was published in 1998.   The actor also served as executive producer for this adaptation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has no mighty gonzo wind… it leaves our freak flag limp.”–David Edelstein, New York Magazine (contemporaneous)

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.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

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