Stress takes many forms — a headache, irritability, harsh words. But its possible metamorphosis into a bizarre physical manifestation forms the narrative spine of How to Get Ahead In Advertising, a barbed, 1988 cult classic from Bruce Robinson that helped land star Richard Grant any number of supporting comedic roles in slightly more staid, traditional Stateside product.
Skewering both the advertising industry and split-personality dramas with wit and without much pity, the movie stars Grant as slick corporate ad man Dennis Bagley, who is as cynical as he is successful. When Dennis develops an extreme case of creative block during an important campaign for acne cream, his anxieties over a boil on his neck escalate until his worries manifest as a socially mischievous evil twin head growing out of his neck. Well… at least that’s what he thinks and sees, despite fairly calm, reasoned efforts by his wife (Rachel Ward) and psychiatrist (John Shrapnel) to convince him otherwise. As his carefully constructed professional world crumbles down around him, can Dennis save himself from the demon whispering advice in his ear, or will his mental collapse completely engulf him?
As written and directed by Robinson (The Killing Fields, Withnail and I), How To Get Ahead In Advertising attacks micro-tuned capitalism with an eccentric glee and wild abandon. Robinson’s collaborator matters greatly in this endeavor. Grant’s performance is akin to watching a car in front of you on the highway skid precariously along the road’s edge, so charged is it with dangerous energy. And that’s great for a bit, truly. After a while, though, the film’s grip loosens considerably, largely because there is no outside force acting reliably upon Dennis’ stark, raving lunacy. A distressing feeling of manic sameness settles upon the movie, and it transitions from a vehicle by which to comment upon capitalism, consumerism and their impact upon one’s personality and relationships to a warped, hysterically pitched one-man show. One’s appetite for that will greatly impact their enjoyment of the film.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with hollowed-out spindles (which is good) and a not-particularly-deeply-set (which is bad), How To Get Ahead in Advertising comes to DVD presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track. The DVD cover of this reissue seems strangely faded, and apart from a handful of auto-start trailers all slugged together there doesn’t seem to be a particularly compelling reason for its release, since there are no supplemental features at all. If someone really loves the film and doesn’t yet own it, the superb 2001 Criterion release is the way to go, honestly. Nevertheless, to purchase this version via Amazon, click here. C- (Movie) D- (Disc)