How to get Ahead in Advertising (1989)
Starring Richard E Grant as the archetypal 80s yuppie, this hilarious and metaphorical study of a burned-out executive’s midlife crisis paints a familiar human face on the zeitgeist of our modern consumer age.
Although seemingly successful on the outside, hotshot advertising executive Denis Dimbleby Bagley hits a brick wall when he’s asked to come up with a catchy advertising campaign for yet another new acne treatment. It should be easy for a man of his talents, but instead he comes up empty as all of his personal doubts, demons and neuroses congeal into a psychological poison which has been festering inside him for years.
Sliding rapidly into a nervous breakdown, Bagley’s deteriorating mental health manifests physically as a boil on his shoulder, which continues to grow despite various attempts at treatment. Eventually it develops its own voice as Bagley’s inner conflict breaks out into open warfare. As he constantly fights with himself, those around him and society at large, Bagley struggles with the universal yet intensely personal question of whether he is really a good man, who’s led a worthy life. However, as this movie so clearly demonstrates, the answer to that fundamental question is not always “yes”.
Released during what many people regard as Handmade Films’ most creative period, Bruce Robinson’s hilarious scripting and direction mercilessly skewers both social convention and personal pomposity, while also challenging many of the comfortable, middle-class assumptions that rule not only the characters’ lives but also our own, regardless of where we’ve actually come from.
One of the particular strengths of the script is its sense of balance. While Bagley believes his existential angst is something new and unique, Richard Wilson’s older and more experienced portrayal of Bagley’s boss has seen his own share of therapy, and looks upon his junior’s struggle as a natural part of the creative and evolutionary process. Bagley becomes each and every one of us as he struggles in vain against the rising tide of his own commercial instincts. Probably the most unsettling part of the whole movie is that, despite its boorish manners and unrepentant dog eat dog outlook, Bagley’s boil is always honest when it speaks.
Like all truly great scripts, How to get Ahead in Advertising remains relevant and reinvents itself for each new generation. The much lauded pork pie rant applies as much to today’s fake news as it did to yesterday’s fake flavourings. More than anything else, this movie reminds us how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
This film is as funny as it is insightful, and it manages to perfectly frame the eternal struggle between activist and pragmatist that plays out daily inside each and every one of us. It had much to teach when it was first released, and probably even more so today, which is why How to get Ahead in Advertising easily makes it into my top ten British films.