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TRCH Hairspray

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

9 October 08 words: Matt Goold
Pegg plays up the slapstick moments, squashing little dogs and falling over any stationary object presented to him with studied mugging

Foetus-featured Toby Young's cringingly wonderful account of his disastrous stint as a celeb journalist in New York was a surprise literary hit on its release, its painfully toe-curling tales of his attempts to ingratiate himself into the American glitterati with a success rate that slips into overdraft proving a satirically astute read. I'm sure I am not the only person to confess that there were several moments of fitting embarrassment caused by reading it on public transport, snorts of shocked hilarity as Young took on the very English baton of self-effacement and ran straight out the stadium and into the hills. Hence this adaptation comes with a certain expectation... Can the film provoke such reaction, and also convey the satire adequately?

Sadly, no. The first error seems to be the casting. Simon Pegg can hardly put a foot wrong in anything he does, but this all round niceness doesn't make him a convincing Young. He is, after all, an actor who Americans have taken to their bosom readily on account of Shaun of the Dead, along with a burgeoning love of Spaced, playing a man who Americans roundly ignored, disliked, and rejected. While Pegg plays up the rather broad slapstick moments with evident relish, squashing little dogs and falling over any stationary object presented to him with studied mugging. It's hard to see the essence of Young shine through, even though he is a much more physically astute choice than Jack Davenport (who took on the role in the widley maligned stage play, to much unintentional hilarity). Pegg is just too nice, but guaranteed to draw in the hipster audience across the Atlantic in a way that a more accurate choice (William Hague, perhaps) could never muster.

The comedy set pieces roll nicely together, and the story manages to steer perilously close to, but thankfully never onto, the jagged rocks of rom-com mawkishness, and it's incredibly fun trying to place the fictionalised names with their real, none too subtle inspirations, Jeff Bridges' fine turn as the editor of 'Sharps' (Vanity Fair), 'Clayton Harding' (a possibly flattered Graydon Carter) is particularly notable. Miriam Margoyles is perfect in a small role as the prudish landlady from hell, Kirsten Dunst gets by fine with her Noughties Meg Ryan thing, and a shark-eyed Gillian Anderson is terrifying icy as an aloof and blatantly evil publicist.

Satire wise, however, Young's self confessed prurience towards the superficial world of celebrity never really shines through, neutering the book's thrust. Such filmed expositions of supposedly 'high end' fame journalism - take The Devil Wears Prada - rarely have quite the bite to tear the flesh and expose the fetid innards of their subject matter with the savagery of their literary forbearers. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People seems to realise this and thus takes the much easier route, forsaking lid-lifting entirely for a rather cosy portrayal of the symbiotic relationship between the stars and the mags. The more unkind would label this a cop-out, but what remains is an above-average, pleasing farce; a diverting couple of hours, with an unconvincing but never overbearing romance tacked on.

There is a feeling that the more interesting film here would be one made about the actual making of the film: stories of Young being banned from the set for interfering in the production are already rife, and Young's latest book, The Sound of One Hand Clapping recounts the bizarre processes an adaption has to go through before being put up on the screen. Ever the cultural post-modernist, Young is probably tapping out a screenplay right this moment, whilst en route cutting a swathe through conventional matters and upsetting the etiquette applecart. Watch this space...

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