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HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING(director/writer: Bruce Robinson; cinematographer: Peter Hannan; editor: Alan Strachan; cast: Richard E. Grant (Dennis Bagley), Rachel Ward (Julia), Richard Wilson (Bristol), Jacqueline Tong (Penny Wheelstock), John Shrapnel (Psychiatrist), Susan Wooldridge (Monica); Runtime: 95; Warner Bros.; 1989-UK)
“A dark comedy from Great Britain about the advertising world.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A dark comedy from Great Britain about the advertising world. Bruce Robinson, the creative director and writer of “Withnail And I,” has come up once again with an original film, which again stars Richard E. Grant. “How to Get Ahead in Advertising” is a tirade against the phony world of advertising and the screams denouncing that industry seemed like sweet music to my ears up to a point, as the message of the film eventually moved from being funny to becoming shrill and overwhelming even to someone like me who was sympathetic to the script. Ad men could very well be the lowest souls on the food chain on planet Earth, is a point that doesn’t have to be nailed into me before I get it.

Dennis Bagley (Grant) is a creative genius in the advertising field, a top whiz in a big advertising company, living a very wealthy lifestyle while residing in a country estate, surrounded with empty friends and a beautiful trophy wife. He is a flamboyant hustler who gets traumatized because of a boil on the side of his neck that looks like a man and talks back to him. The boil becomes his alter ego and can’t let him forget who he is, even when he wants to turn over a new leaf and warn the public about how advertising is a means of killing the truth.

Bagley can’t face his boss Bristol (Wilson), as he is having trouble coming up with a new ad slogan campaign for a pimple cream and is getting the new sponsor anxious because he is going past the deadline. Consumed with stress Bagley develops a boil on his neck that is consuming him, and his understanding wife Julia (Ward) becomes afraid that he is having a breakdown; especially, since he runs naked through the garden having a conversation with the boil.

In need of help, Bagley sees a shrink (Shrapnel) who is only too glad to listen to him and his boil. The shrink checks for the usual causes of dysfunction in modern society: sex, stress and career. When Bagley rants on that he quit his high paying job because advertising conspires with Big Brother and is all about greed, the shrink responds the same way as Bristol did to his resignation — that he needs to get his problem taken care of and then return to work. The point made, is that both the business world and the world of science are ready to sell almost any product to make a buck. They both exist by giving the public what they want. The ad men can only sell products people are led to believe they need, while shrinks can only help those who want to fit in.

The film starts off very funny and then moves into sermonizing about the corrupt industry. It becomes a story about the talking boil taking over the personality of the man trapped in all his lies who now is not only guilt-ridden by what evil he does, but has become an ugly zit. Bagley’s sense of being is replaced by the boil who knows only how to sell things. The huckster’s motto being: If you want to sell pimple cream, you have to encourage people to have pimples. You only want to sell them hope not a cure…which is the way you make your profit.

The cast play their parts with the earnest intensity and gullibility required, with Richard Grant showing a lot of energy. It’s an unusual picture, one worth a look at for those who don’t mind pure nuttiness instead of dramatics. To enjoy this film, I think one has to empathize with Bagley’s predicament. When he has a bag (bag for Bagley) over his head and has been taken over by the boil, he is now the outsider in his own body and his stifled voice is unable to reach the public. One day, he rants, we will wake up and find that we ruined the rain forest for hamburgers and we will find oxygen in short-supply, with Brazilians fixing the price on oxygen just like the Arabs now do with oil. It sounds far-reaching, a ghastly cry against the excesses of materialism; or, does it?


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”