In Toby Young’s aptly named book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, now a motion picture starring Shawn of the Dead’s Simon Pegg, he detailed how not to become a success in the cut throat world of New York magazine publishing. In 1995 English journalist Young accepted a job with Vanity Fair as a contributing editor. He may have envisioned himself to be the next Alistair Cooke, but from the second he stepped off the plane from London he was doomed to failure. His laddish stunts and seemingly bottomless aptitude for offending people made him an outsider in the oh-so-proper world of Conde Nast.
For example he broke every office sexual harassment rule by hiring a Strip-o-gram for a fellow employee, and to make matters worse he did it on that most politically correct day of days, Take Your Daughter to Work Day. For most of the time he worked at Vanity Fair he sat idle, collecting a large pay packet for doing very little work. He blew the biggest story he was assigned, interviewing actor Nathan Lane by asking him a series of inappropriate questions, culminating with a discussion about his sexual practises. Lane walked out of the interview, and Young’s career at VF was pretty much over. Perhaps his most pathetic move was to add the prefix “Hon” (short for “Honourable”) to his VISA in an attempt to impress New York women. The Sunday Times called the book “the longest self-depreciating joke since the complete works of Woody Allen.”
For legal reasons, I would imagine, many of the names have been changed—Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter becomes Clayton Harding—and some of the details are different—Vanity Fair is now Sharp Magazine—from the famously sharp tongued memoir, but star Simon Pegg does manage to capture most of the “negative charisma” that Young describes himself as having in the book.
Comparisons to the best selling book end there, however. The basic storyline is the same and many of the incidents from the book are faithfully reproduced, but Young’s analysis of where everything went wrong, the thing that made the book a delight, has not translated. Instead we’re offered up a catalogue of his endless faux pas, many of which are quite funny, without much in the way of social commentary. Compared to the book it’s a rather empty exercise in slapstick and humiliation that plays up the romance between Pegg’s character and Kirsten Dunst at the expense of the book’s in-depth fish out of water story. Like the magazine he was fired from Young’s book is a mix of high-brow ideas presented with low brow appeal. The movie, however, tends to concentrate on the low brow.
The actors are well cast and fun to watch. Danny Huston is suitably oily as Lawrence Maddox, the unctuous editor of the magazine’s On the Town column; Jeff Bridges is effortless as the oddball publisher Harding; Dunst brings a frumpy appeal as the damaged love interest; Gillian Anderson is spot on as a manipulative publicist and Megan Fox ups the sex appeal of the character of starlet Sophie Maes, but this is Pegg’s movie.
As usual he is wonderfully watchable as the oafish Sidney Young (for some reason the author’s name was changed) and brings a great deal of charm to a character who should be unlovable in the extreme.
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People suffers for concentrating on the basic elements of the story—his oafish behaviour and the romance—sacrificing the juicy gossip and insight that made the book a best seller, but is saved by engaging performances from Pegg and Bridges and some funny, but cringe worthy moments that redefine social awkwardness.