How to Get Ahead in Advertising Review

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A thirtysomething advertising executive, Dennis Bagley (Grant), rebels against his cynical profession, ridding his house of anything touched by advertising. Bagley then sprouts a talking boil on his neck, which spouts the cynical consumerist rhetoric of old whilst growing ever-larger until it eventually replaces his actual head.


Bruce Robinson's last film, Withnail & I, was a celebration of the ranting romanticism of Richard E. Grant's Withnail, an unemployed actor dedicated to abusing the world and his body as the 60s sagged into the 70s. Withnail clearly verged on a self-portrait of his creator but his self-involved impatience with society had a foil in Paul McGann's narrator and sidekick, ever the restraining contrast to Withnail's relentless self-dramatising. Without McGann, Withnail would simply have been a hysterical bore.

Robinson's latest venture is an all-out attack on the glossy lies of advertising and consumer capitalism in late 80s Britain. Richard E. Grant reprises Withnail as a cynical and successful advertising executive who turns on his profession. The strain of trying to create a campaign to sell pimple cream drives Grant's Dennis Bagley over the edge and, within a few minutes of the film's opening, he is attempting to remove anything that might be contaminated by advertising from his picture-perfect country mansion. Farcical scenes of a semi-naked Grant stuffing frozen chickens down the toilet give way to his mounting panic as he discovers a boil growing on his neck, a boil that can talk and has no sympathy for Bagley's newfound loathing of advertising.

Robinson's film is the kind of cry from the heart an 18 year old promises himself he will make when he gets to the top, a rant at the corruptions of society unchecked by any sense of drama. When the boil takes over from Bagley in a transformation scene worthy of a school play, the 'new' Bagley sets about a demonic advertising campaign designed to sell pimple cream by selling boils themselves. Meanwhile the old Bagley has swapped places with the boil.

De-programmed advertising executives don't make the most sympathetic of characters, especially when their main foil is a beautiful but utterly wooden wife (Rachel Ward) who spends the entire film telling Bagley to calm down. The boil itself is a rather cumbersome metaphor unwisely made flesh and obliges Robinson to spend a good half of his film dealing with the plot mechanics of the struggle between Bagley and boil. Grant does the best that he can with the wordy script and a role that rarely drops below the level of hysteria but even he cannot make either Bagley much more than a vehicle for Robinson's ideas. The result is a curiously airless film utterly lacking the visual imagination of the profession it is attacking, Robinson remains a passionate talent but this wordy film takes an inordinate amount of time to tell us something we already know.

A scabrous, somewhat wayward anti-80's rant that, whilst providing Grant with a few moments of high farce, lacks the wit and social surety of Withnail & I.