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‘How to Lose Friends’ plays it too safe

The film could have been a biting satire about the nature relationship between magazines and the celebrities they cover; instead it becomes a limp romantic comedy.
/ Source: The Associated Press

After “The Devil Wears Prada” detailed an up-and-comer at Vogue magazine, “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People” attempts to do the same with Vanity Fair. Cross your fingers that Hollywood eventually gets to Field & Stream.

Based on the memoir by Toby Young, “How to Lose Friends” is about a British journalist named Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) hired from across the pond to come to New York and write celebrity profiles for Sharps magazine — a clear stand-in for Vanity Fair, complete with a doppelganger for Editor-in-Chief Graydon Carter, played by Jeff Bridges.

Pegg’s Sidney is your classic Brit in the Big City, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect. Surrounded by serious, unfunny and superficial colleagues, he’s a loutish, uncool party crasher who cheerfully claims “Con Air” is the greatest film ever made.

In “How to Lose Friends,” Americans are the ones that need to loosen up. But when did we Yanks become the straight men? After centuries of casting the British — with their etiquette and their tea — as the boring ones, the international scales of stereotype may be tipping the other way.

Indeed, Sidney is at one point described as “a British person born in New Jersey.”

But the one cultural difference Sidney is most proud of is his refusal to join in — as portrayed here — American-style fawning over celebrities. (Never mind Fleet Street’s rabid celebrity obsession.)

Sidney is more fearless. He doesn’t bat an eye at asking a musical comedy star if he’s Jewish or if he’s gay. He doesn’t hesitate to call a highly regarded young director a twit. And he won’t play the industry standard games of cow-towing to publicist demands to land an interview.

“Hacks do not take orders from flacks,” he insists.

It’s not his ethics that make him enemies so much as his boorish behavior. Only fellow scribe Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst) can tolerate him.

There is some satire here of the entertainment industry: its velvet ropes, its “in-crowd,” its celebrity coddling. But where there might be biting observation, there are mostly pratfalls, “limpy pig” dances and full-frontal nudity.

That’s not necessarily all to the bad, since Pegg’s good cheer is hard to resist. The British comedic actor impressed with his breakthrough British comedies “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” — both of which are smart enough while seeming dumb.

“How to Lose Friends” comes close to finding the same equilibrium. Unfortunately, it falls into incredibly predictable territory as Sidney gives up his standards in return for advancement and then doubts whether it’s worth trading success for a chance at real love.

The two notable satirical exceptions are Gillian Anderson’s pitch-perfect publicist and the mock trailer for the fictional film “Teresa” about Mother Teresa, starring a young starlet (Megan Fox).

Instead, the film turns to standard romantic comedy territory. Sidney, as anyone would, falls for Alison. Dunst is a restless, whip-smart beauty who, after all, can make Spider-Men consider giving up their powers. What chance does a hack have?

The film undoubtedly loses something when she disappears for much of the third act as the film lumbers toward obvious movie cliches instead of something new. It’s a shame because the movie’s director, Robert Weide, has proven a willingness to go deep into life’s raw imperfections as a director and producer of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

If only he had asked while making the film, “What would Larry do?”