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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward, Richard Wilson
Director:  Bruce Robinson
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  94 Minutes
Release Date:  July 10, 2001

Film ***1/2

The world of mass advertising is our new Big Brother…a point made in loud, over-the-top ways in Bruce Robinson’s modern comedy classic, How To Get Ahead in Advertising.  A nearly perfect film, it falters a little bit under the weight of its own eccentricities, but manages to succeed overall with a biting, satirical, no-holds-barred approach to it’s subject matter, and its willingness to go to manic extremes to portray it in the right kind of light.

Dennis Bagley (Grant, in a remarkable and memorable comic performance) is the hot shot adman who can sell anything to anybody.  His views are extreme, yet never seem beyond the realm of truth.  In the opening scene, he leads a staff meeting with all the gusto of a true propagandist.  “Whatever it is, sell it!” he demands.  Sell any kind of food in a health-conscious society by emphasizing that it’s either low in something or high in something.  Sell hydrogen bombs by first selling the people on the need for peace.  It’s a fast moving tour-de-force of a scene that clearly establishes 1) the character of Bagley, and 2) the world of advertising as it is to be portrayed in this film.

Bagley’s problem:  he has to come up with an ad campaign for a new acne cream.   The product doesn’t even have a name yet, but time is running out.  In his office, he paces around, mimicking different voice overs and improvising possible commercials:   none of them work to his satisfaction.   After all, as he admits, no cream can actually cure acne, nor does an ad agency want it to.  The idea is to simply make pimple sufferers believe that it helps just enough to continue buying the product.  The stress is beginning to get to him.

It takes its physical toll, ironically, in the shape of a boil on his neck…one that continues to grow larger until it actually spouts facial features and a voice!  This is a literal representation of the old “devil on the shoulder” visual.  The boil, which at first appears to be a conscience, is actually more akin to “The Enemy Within”.  Bagley has two sides to his personality, and while his fears and anxieties are suddenly manifest in his own head, in the boil are just the opposite:  his ruthlessness, intelligence, and abject cynicism.

No one can seem to hear the talking boil but Bagley, not even his longsuffering mannered wife Julia (Ward) nor his delightfully efficient boss Bristol (Wilson).  The situation worsens until one day, in a sequence that has to be seen to be believed, the boil completely takes over Bagley’s body!  I made reference to the famous Star Trek episode the film reminded me of…note for an added touch how the new, evil Dennis sports a mustache as the only physical difference!

The new Dennis Bagley is prime to take over the reins of the advertising world, as well as the bed of the old Bagley’s wife.  Is Dennis’ good side over and done with?  Don’t expect a conventional ending.  In fact, don’t expect anything conventional at all from this movie.

The film is hysterical from beginning to end…ruthless and relentless in its witticisms and barbs hurled at an industry portrayed as destroying our world and ourselves as individuals.  The point with the boil is very clear:  a person needs to harness a wicked, cynical side to succeed in such a business, but such a side is very hard to control…it could end up controlling you.

I was slightly less interested when the picture veered away from its chosen target and focused on the bedroom problem.  The fact that the new Dennis became a voracious sexual creature took too much time away from the true theme of the film.  I also felt the movie cheated us out of what could have been a brilliant sequence:  a video made by the old Dennis that promises to show clips from all the TV ads he had created, but reworked in order to show the real truth within them.  This video is never seen…quite a let down.

But over all, the film works far more than it fails.  It’s sharp, twisted, strange, original and wonderful many times over, and brutally funny, with a sharp cast and a biting script from writer/director Robinson.  It might just make you think twice about that next Happy Meal…

Video ***

No!  Why, oh why, after such a lengthy and unblemished DVD track record, did Criterion choose not to anamorphically enhance this widescreen disc?  One can only hope this is a mere hiccup in production values and not the whisperings of a boil on the neck of someone in charge of transfers.  The disc still looks good, with clean, sharp images and natural looking and well-contained coloring throughout.  The print is quite free of distracting marks or debris, and the overall image is not affected by compression artifacts or grain.  Let’s pray that this non-anamorphic issue was a mere oversight and not a sign of things to come.

Audio **1/2

The Dolby surround track works well, using the rear stage to open up the range of audio slightly, with some music cues and other ambient effects emanating from over the shoulders.  Dialogue is never a problem; sparkling clear throughout.  I noticed no noise or distractions.  Overall, a highly satisfactory effort, if unspectacular by the nature of the film.

Features *

Only a trailer.


Fast paced, angry, sharp and relentless, How to Get Ahead in Advertising is dark, surreal comedy at its biting, cynical best.  The quality of the film makes up for the lack of features and anamorphic presentation, making this one a must-see for the adventurous and curious.