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How To Get Ahead in Advertising

The folks at The Criterion Collection place a proud statement on the front of their DVDs, describing their releases as "a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films." Where the outrageous 1989 British satire How To Get Ahead in Advertising fits into that mission is left up to you to decide — it's about a man with a talking boil. Richard E. Grant stars as Denis Dimbleby Bagley, a nasty, sharp-tongued London adman who's making his company rich by exploiting the public's terror of dandruff, hemorrhoids, and bad hygiene. His latest challenge is a new account for an acne cream, but he can't nail the marketing concept — and the pressure is sending him into full-blown dementia. After blowing a gasket at a lavish dinner party and ranting at the assembled guests about the evils of advertising and the hypocrisy of consumer society, Bagley discovers that he's sprouted a painful boil on his own neck. The boil grows larger and larger and eventually opens a wet eye and looks at him. The thing begins to talk to Bagley — although no one else can hear it — and he deperately schemes to get rid of it, as it continues to grow into a full-sized, second head. Director Bruce Robinson's eclectic career includes an early stint as an actor, appearing as Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, in Ken Russell's The Music Lovers and opposite Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adele H, then moving on to write the screenplay for The Killing Fields and his own first directorial effort, the brilliant — and reportedly autobiographical — Withnail and I. Grant, who starred in Withnail, gives a performance here that is by turns frenetic, evil, terrified and titanically enraged, and he's a joy to watch. And How To Get Ahead in Advertising, while by no means the equal of Withnail, is filled with sharp, mean-spirited dialogue, dead-on satiric observation, and snappy performances. While it occasionally feels like Robinson's overwritten his story, putting pages and pages of frothing diatribes against consumer society into Grant's mouth, this is a very weird, very underrated black comedy that deserves a look. Criterion's DVD includes a new letterboxed transfer (1.85:1) supervised by director of photography Peter Hannan, the theatrical trailer, and closed-captioning. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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