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Dennis Dimbleby Bagley is a brilliant young advertising executive who can't come up with a slogan to sell a revolutionary new pimple cream. His obsessive worrying affects not only his relationship with his wife, his friends and his boss, but also his own body - graphically demonstrated when he grows a large stress-related boil on his shoulder. But when the boil grows eyes and a mouth and starts talking, Bagley really begins to think he's lost his mind. But has he? Written by
Michael Brooke <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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Denis Dimbleby Bagley:
Let me try and clarify some of this for you. Best Company Supermarkets are not interested in selling wholesome foods. They are not worried about the nation's health. What is concerning them, is that the nation appears to be getting worried about its health, and that is what's worrying Best Co., because Best Co. wants to go on selling them what it always has, i.e. white breads, baked beans, canned foods, and that suppurating, fat squirting little heart attack traditionally known as ...
[...] See more »
In Withnail & I, Bruce Robinson made one of the funniest films there is. Therefore it's always going to be hard for anything else he's made to equal his debut. However, in How to Get Ahead in Advertising he comes mighty close.
The reason why Robinson's second film fails to match Withnail & I is because at times it becomes too preachy. There are some great speeches in the film; some wonderful digs at consumerism, but occasionally it descends into uninteresting ranting. Yeah consumerism can turn us into unthinking automatons, and yeah big business is greedy, but you don't really need to point it out so blatantly. We already know this. The film works much better when illustrates the BS or when it jabs at it. It doesn't need to get on its soapbox.
One of my favourite bits in the film is when Bagley (Richard E. Grant) a cocky advertising executive who suddenly loses his magic touch when he has to sell boil cream is listening to a bunch of idiots talking about a newspaper article. As a person who makes a living out of lying, he's appalled that they believe what the press tells them. They then begin to argue (there's a great bit when an Irish priest insists that a woman in a vice den had peanut butter smeared across her tits; it was in the paper so it must be true) and the conversation quickly turns to the boil cream that Bagley has become obsessed with. "They're incurable, all of them. I know that and so does everybody else. Until they get one. Then the rules suddenly change." And then he has a dig at the priest. "They want to believe something works. He knows that, which is why he gets a good look-in with the dying." It's a great scene; it's funny as hell and it also has a good point to make: people consume less out of desire and more out of a desperate sort of hope, or even fear; they hope this product or that product will fill the hole in their lives. They hope it will be the answer to all their problems. And thankfully this scene refrains from the preaching that affects the latter stages. Instead it goes right for the jugular.
But my favourite scene of all is the one with the psychiatrist Bagley has quit his job and developed a hideous boil of his own, one that talks to him and one that has a face. He's talking to the quack with a big bandage on his shoulder. He rants for a while about the way advertisers have ruined television, and then all of a sudden, after silence, the boil speaks. The way it's presented in the film, the boil (at first) has a separate voice to Bagley's. He's not portrayed as Gollum with a satanic pimple; he's not talking to himself. But at the same time you're never really sure whether you're seeing things from Bagley's perspective. He's gone totally crazy, so he may very well be the one saying all this crap. Plus the boil only speaks when Bagley's not looking the other person in the face. But what I love about the scene is the filth the boil speaks and Grant's reactions. His hysteria is hilarious (there's another magnificent bit of hysteria in the film when the boil first 'speaks', Bagley is so shocked that he runs to the kitchen, shaking and spazzing like he's got St Vitus' dance. Grant is amazing at working himself up into a lather). And then the boil asks Bagley to tell the shrink about his grandfather. "My grandfather was caught molesting a wallaby in a private zoo in 1919." "A wallaby?" "It may have been a kangaroo. I'm not sure." "You mean sexually?" "I suppose so. He had his hand in its pouch." I haven't heard dialogue that funny in a long time.
I also love the scene when Bagley is admitted to hospital to have the boil lanced. By now he's completely raving. He's going on and on about the evils of consumerism. So then the boil says, "You commies don't half talk a lot of s***." Magnificent! It's the sort of argument a Daily Mail reader would give. Criticise capitalism and you must be a goddamned Red. However, I can see where the boil is coming from. There are certainly times when Robinson is too militant. Like I said before, he really doesn't need to stand so high on his soapbox. But at the same time the film makes some excellent points. It's just that the film works better when it does it through comedy rather than rhetoric.
Another great scene, one that takes a poke at society's hypocrisy, is when Bagley argues with a feminist who thinks men should bleed. "And I think you're a vegan who eats meat in secret. You see, she doesn't deny it. She's a vegan who eats meat in secret." "I do not eat meat!" "But you'll eat fish, you'll eat fish until the cows come home." "Fish is allowed!" Of course, this enrages Bagley.
But although hypocritical lefties get a kicking too, the film, early on, raises an interesting point. If you're anti-consumerism, how do you spread your message without advertising? It's a bit of a kick in the teeth, that.
However, Robinson is smart enough to know that consumerism is here to stay. The film doesn't end with any hope. All we can look forward to is more advertising, more spending and more products. The world is one magnificent shop, indeed.
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