Sidney Young (Pegg) is a down-on-his-luck British journalist offered the chance of a lifetime at glossy US magazine Sharps. However, his plans to conquer New York hit speedbumps in the shape of a glamorous starlet (Fox), her ruthless publicist (Anderson) and his increasingly irate co-workers (Dunst, Bridges, Huston).
It should have been evident from the moment the casting was announced that there would be a huge disconnect between this film and its source memoir. The book was written by journalist Toby Young in a frank admission of his own monstrous ego when, as a young wannabe, he landed a job at Vanity Fair. As portrayed in his own tome, he’s a complete tit. Cast as Sidney Young (names changed to protect the guilty), however, is Simon Pegg, a man who can’t help but be likable even when playing numpties. It’s instantly clear that the film’s tone has shifted from Young’s bite and bile to something broader - but as a result it’s just a little less sharp.
After all, many films have pointed a finger at the absurdities of the media world - The Devil Wears Prada most recently. Young’s book was sharper than most because he was honest enough to note the hypocrisy of those, like him, who pursued stardom by proxy while denouncing its existence. But Pegg’s Sidney is more clueless scamp than obnoxious twat. Oh sure, he’s a preening idiot, a hack with a sense of entitlement far beyond his abilities - but his tendency to engage in outrageous stunts, like trying to crash the BAFTAs with a pig whom he pretends is the star of Babe, is rather winning. And his puppyish pursuit of starlet Sophie Maes (Megan Fox) has more the air of teenage exuberance about it than the sleazy feel of Toby Young’s dogged hunt for supermodels.
Should it matter if there have been changes from book to screen? Not really, except that now the film’s tone rests on shifting sand. Director Bob Weide has a light hand, but can’t quite nail a script that doesn’t settle on one mood. There’s the broad physical comedy of the opening scenes, which recurs at regular intervals to keep the plebs happy. Then there’s the fish-out-of-water comedy of the Brit abroad, for those who enjoy laughing at shallow Americans/scruffy Londoners. And there’s the witty treatment of celebrity and its assorted satellites, from Gillian Anderson’s dragon-lady publicist to Fox’s ludicrously sexy starlet. These two are the film’s secret weapons. One expects excellence from Pegg and Jeff Bridges, as former radical and Sharps editor Clayton Harding (as opposed to Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter), and they both deliver. But Anderson is the foil for the best comedy, giving a chilling portrait of the star-maker with an iron fist in her velvet glove. Fox, meanwhile, builds on that car-repairing debut in Transformers with a smokin’ turn as a Marilyn-voiced actress about to make it big thanks to a hilariously awards-baiting turn. Male viewers will probably, once again, find themselves too distracted to notice it, but it looks like she may be able to act as well. The rest of the cast get shorter shrift. Max Minghella fails to capitalise on an arrogant-wunderkind-director role, and Kirsten Dunst is stuck in a drab turn as Sidney’s only confidante in his new workplace. Much better is Danny Huston, oleaginous as Sidney’s super-smooth boss, even when faced with a transsexual stripper on Bring Your Daughters To Work Day.
With so much going on, and so many talented people involved, the funny is brought. It’s just that this feels like that rare beast: a comedy that would be better without the physical kind. It’s in the battle of wits and half-wits that this film comes to life, and reaches what Bridges’ Harding calls the seventh room, to play with the big boys.
Not as smart or as satirical as you might hope, but an enjoyable and often funny look at a mad, mad, mad, mad world.