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Morphing Out

with 3 comments

A couple of nights ago I watched this movie, called How to Lose Friends and Alienate  People.  I’d been dancing around it for a couple of weeks, because I recognized the title, and yet I couldn’t imagine a movie made from the book I’d read.  For one thing, the book was a memoir, and a memoir that involved whole rafts of well knosn people likely to be willing to sue.  For another, the narrative arc itself left something–well.   Let’s just say it lacked a lot of the elements American audiences would be likey to pay to see.

As it turned out, the movie was indeed based on the book, although very useful.

Toby Young’s memoir is about his time working for Vanity Fair, a clueless Brit low-level journalist suddenly catapaulted into US Celebrity Central, which is where he thinks he wants to be.

What follows, in the book, is a dismal record of failure–in an American media culture that expects professionalism, drive, and nearly fanatical devotion to work, never mind absolutely fanatical devotion to watching what you eat and drink, he rampaged through the landscape making one mistake after another until the magazine packed him up and sent him home.

I read this book a couple of years ago, and what struck me most about it was the end, which consisted of a long diatribe about how absolutely awful and unnatural “American” women were.

I put the American in quotation marks there because it’s fairly obvious from the book that  Toby met few if any American women.  What he met instead was a particular kind of New York female whose counterparts in Los Angeles and a few other places represent the only examples of the type on the planet, never mind in the country.  If he’d anted to meet actual American women, he should have gotten out of the claustrophobic clutches of celebrity journalism and met people who, you know, wouldn’t recognize Nick Nolte if they saw him in the street, and wouldn’t care if they did.

The movie dispenses with all the inconvenient facts presented in Young’s memoir–the alcoholic haze, the lack of work eithic–and gives us instead a man named Sydney Young who, if clueless, quite definitely has a heart of gold.

He’s also got a lot of other things Americans want their British-born heroes to have:  a master’s degree in philosophy from a good university; a father who is not only a ditinguished academic but a Lord, which means our hero has a minor title; and a narrative arc that takes him straight to the top of the magazine world before he realizes he can’t stand any of these people and runs off to be with his true love, the Misplaced Magazine  Staffer Who  Is Really A Serious  Novelist.

I”m making this movie sound an awful lot worse than it is.  I actually liked it a lot and watched it twice in two days. 

But likable as the movie is, it is not particularly original and it doesn’t have anything new–or even true–to say.   I sympathize with the underlying premise.  I’ve actually worked with these people, and although I never reached the exalted heights of Vanity Fair, I put in my time on NY glossy magazines. 

But sympathize as I do, Iknow thata most of the people who make serious careers in that world believe heart and soul in what they’re doing, and would not want to be doing anything else.  I’m also fairly convinced that had the real Toby Young made a success of it, he wouldn’t have been claiming to have no use for it now.

What interests me here is why the people who made this movie made this movie.  It’s a nice enough little thing. It has some moderately big names–Kirsten Dunst, Jeff Bridges–plus Simon Pegg, who starred in Hot Fuzz, one of my truly favorite movies.  The photography is good, the sets are shiny, the actors playing the stupid celebrities the magazine chronicles are really, really good at appearing too stupid to breathe in and pump blood at the same time.


The damned thing is a cliche from start to finish, right down to the final apocalyptic smash-up at the Academy Awards.  There’s nothing new in it.

And for all the deficiencies of the original memoir, there was quite a lot that was, if not entirely new, then entirely true, in that.

I’m not one of those people who think that moviemakers must stay “true to the book” whenever they translate it to the screen.  Different artistic forms have different requirements, and there’s good reason why second-rate books make better movies than first-rate ones.

In this case, though, we weren’t dealing with a first rate book, just a book that said some things that the people who made the movie found no reason to pay attention to.  It’s hard to understand why they bothered to pay Toby Young the money to use his title.

Absolutely the best thing about this movie is a fake trailer for a nonexistent movie called Teresa:  The Making of a Saint, in which a gorgeous but mentally brain dead Hot Young  Actress plays the young Mother Teresa as…well, you’d have to see it to believe it.

It runs during the credits, and it, unlike the movie, has a point.

Written by janeh

April 19th, 2009 at 8:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Morphing Out'

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  1. If you haven’t read them, you may find some of William Goldman’s books helpful here. Goldman is both a novelist and a Hollywood screnwriter, and his non-fiction pieces on why Hollywood makes the kind of movies it does are internally consistent and plausible.
    The guts of it is that the key decision-makers are often relatively inexperienced and uncertain what their audience would like. This is made worse by a rising percentage of revenue from overseas–picture writing dialogue with the notion that it will have to be translated in Cantonese–and the fact that they’re not playing with their own money. Goldwyn, the Warners–or even Howard Hughes–could say “I think people will like this movie, and if they don’t, gentlemen, it’s my money I’m risking.” That’s rarely true today.
    Today’s “green light guy”–the one who can authorize the studio to spend money on a picture–plays it safe by making the movie as much like other successful movies as possible. Originality means making it LESS like the previous money-maker. Good luck with that.

    I don’t think we can break the sycle without a technology shift, but the technology shift may be coming. Meantime, I have a lot of GREAT DVDs on my shelves.


    19 Apr 09 at 10:30 am

  2. There’s a reason that the people in NY and LA call all the rest “Flyover Land.” That being that they never visit it, and consider the coasts all that there is of the US. They’re the ones who think the world is crowded and we’re filling it up with people. Well, no. If you bother to drive through it, you’ll find most of it is empty. NY is crowded. LA has bad traffic, and so seems crowded.

    And that peculiar species of woman who lives in those places has no relation whatsoever with reality. Their lives are a constant effort to deny, avoid and crush reality.

    I’ll have to look up the book and the movie though.


    19 Apr 09 at 1:26 pm

  3. There always seem to be a handful of movies like this every year — nothing wrong with them, but nothing particularly stellar, and when you consider that they cost a gazillion bucks to make, you wonder why they bothered. The thing is, there are really just a few genres and formulas, and all they are trying to do is gussy them up to make them sell. Only rarely does a new genre appear. Oddly, Romancing the Stone was a new genre that mixed action, comedy and boy-meets-girl. After that the genre there were dozens made with this formula.

    Someone somewhere probably thought this formula — boy comes to big city, loses values, refinds values and love — would work these days, and that the actors and writing would make it shine. Think of The Devil Wore Prada. I enjoyed watching it on a plane, but can’t remember much about it.

    Because the system works this way, writers/agents/producers come up with their elevator lines (ie the pitch you can make in the few minutes you are ascending or descending with The Man on an elevator) that describe a new film in terms of older ones. It’s Jaws but in the desert. It’s When Harry Met Sally with a bit of Nottinghill Road, only it takes place in the 18th century. It’s a hip hop Casablanca set in Harlem. Bleah.


    20 Apr 09 at 4:05 am

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