What do Americans mean when we talk about “British humor?” We know it when we see it—“Fawlty Towers,” “The Young Ones,” “Absolutely Fabulous,” the original “Office”—but it’s too varied to sum up in a nutshell. In one corner, there’s Monty Python, still the acme of absurdism played with a straight face. In another corner, the broad, bawdy rollicking of Benny Hill. For music lovers, there’s the Bonzo Dog Band, onetime Python co-conspirators in their early years at the BBC and the musical conduit for one of the most splendidly cracked of all eccentric British geniuses: Vivian Stanshall.
A lot of people my age got their first illicit tingles of British humor from MTV, which used to broadcast “The Young Ones” on Sunday nights and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” every weekday afternoon. I watched both programs religiously. Before MTV started producing its own alternative music show, “120 Minutes,” “The Young Ones” was required viewing just for its weekly musical guests, which included Madness, Motörhead and the Damned.
So drawn are some of us to all things British, we don’t even care when the British steal our humor and sell it back to us, just like they did with rock and roll. There’s Quentin Tarantino to thank for the career of Guy Ritchie, always keen to exploit the droll comedic possibilities arising wherever the British and American languages collide. Often the humor comes down to a familiar sentiment expressed in a distinctly British way, or an echt Americanism like “Bust a cap in his ass!” used ironically by one of Ritchie’s British gangsters. A related example in which the humor is purely intonation: My favorite part of Chicken Run, when the American rooster voiced by Mel Gibson tells a stuffy British hen to “Go with it!” when she starts dancing in spite of herself. “I’m going with it!” she cries to the others.
My point is, it’s gratifying for American audiences to see the familiar in British humor, but we don’t want to see a reflection of ourselves. We have a vested entertainment interest in keeping British and Americans somewhat exotic to one another, and perhaps in continuing to regard British comedy as rather smarter than our own. In any event, it’s depressing when British comedians cash in their American cult status for mainstream success and wind up with a handful of magic beans to show for it. Think of poor Rowan Atkinson.
Or, now, Simon Pegg, powerless to hold up the lackluster How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, based on British celebrity journalist Toby Young’s catty memoir of his stint at Vanity Fair. Pegg plays Young’s stand-in, a brash gutter journalist who lands a job at a Vanity Fair stand-in publication with a publisher named Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges)—unmistakably Vanity Fair publisher Graydon Carter—who hires Young because he reminds him of his younger, rasher self. Hi-jinks ensue as Young, torn between attacking and assimilating, tries to infiltrate the upper echelon of celebrity peopled by icy publicists (Gillian Anderson), glabrous metrosexual executives (Danny Huston), and dumb-as-dirt sex bombs (Megan Fox).
The results are nowhere near as awful as anything in the recent Atkinson filmography, but still a step down for Pegg, who previously co-wrote and starred in the wonderful zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead and the even better cop send-up Hot Fuzz. How to Lose Friends starts off promisingly, but falters with weak character development and then goes off the rails entirely with a tacked-on love story, introduced unacceptably late in its running time, and with little to show for chemistry between its principals. One can easily picture Meg Ryan in the role played by Kirsten Dunst. The romantic subplot—or is it supposed to be the main plot?—might have been fished out of a dumpster behind Nora Ephron’s brownstone.
Dunst is actually one of the bright spots, as is Danny Huston as the loathsome Lawrence Maddox. Jeff Bridges is his usual annoying self, really only a slight variation on the same jaded, cynical character he’s been playing since The Fisher King. How to Lose Friends makes the same mortal mistake again and again: expecting its audience to suspend disbelief and sympathize with characters without providing any supporting evidence. Such as, evidence that Young the Writer is worth putting up with Young the Brat, that there’s any reason why he and Dunst should fall in love, or that we’re even supposed to like either of them. If we come close, it’s only because of the likeability both actors project as people off screen. Treacherous business, that, and not enough to sell an on-screen romance.
What’s unusual is that How to Lose Friends is a British production. Whether this is a cynical attempt to cash in on the bottomless American appetite for romantic comedy or just bad screenwriting, tough to say. Pegg emerges from the tedium still likeable, if a bit foolish for clearly not reading his copy of the script through to the end. Fans of his earlier movies might consider walking out at the halfway point.