Directed by: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward, Richard Wilson, Jacqueline Tong, John Shrapnel
A great many of the movies that came from George Harrison’s Handmade Films were less than memorable—or even memorably bad (Shanghai Surprise, anyone?). But the two movies Handmade produced utilizing the peculiar vision of actor-turned-filmmaker Bruce Robinson—Withnail & I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising—were something else again. The former is the better known (and the most cult-driven), but this stylish, black—even bleak—comedy fantasy about advertising is actually, I think, the better film. Richard E. Grant (who’d played Withnail in the earlier movie) stars as cynical advertising genius Denis Dimbleby Bagley, a man who prides himself on being able to sell anything by making it appealing (“I’m the man who’s taken the stench out of everything but shit”). When he gets stuck on trying to come up with a campaign for “a particularly boring pimple cream,” he suffers a breakdown and decides to get out of advertising. But before he can, a boil shows up on his neck. But this is no ordinary boil—at least, depending on where you think reality ends and fantasy begins. It has a face and it talks—embodying everything Bagley hates about himself—and soon controls his life. Worse, when the thing is about to be surgically removed, it becomes a full-sized head—and the wrong head survives the operation. And that’s just the mid-way point. Hysterically funny, bitter and more than a little disturbing—with brilliant use of Camille Saint-Saens “Organ” Symphony and “Jupiter” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. One of the best—and certainly most unusual—films of the 1980s.
The Asheville Film Society will screen How to Get Ahead in Advertising on Tuesday, April 3, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville, and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther. Hanke is the artistic director of the A.F.S.
In Brief: Bruce Robinson’s blistering—and hysterically funny—attack on both advertising and consumer culpability, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, is a fantasticated satire about an advertising whiz who suffers a crise de conscience that is followed by a bizarre physical change in the form of a talking boil that ultimately becomes a second head, which takes over—creating a true monster of the advertising kind. Hard to describe without it sounding ridiculous, but the film is actually anything but, and the line between reality and fantasy is much more defined than is often assumed.