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The Criterion Collection presents
How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1988)

"I might be a chancre, but my word is my bond."
- Denis Dimbleby Bagley's Boil (voice of Richard E. Grant)

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: July 09, 2001

Stars: Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward
Other Stars: Richard Wilson, Jacqueline Tong
Director: Bruce Robinson

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: R for (language)
Run Time: 01h:34m:03s
Release Date: July 10, 2001
UPC: 715515012324
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Richard E. Grant stars as one Denis Dimbleby Bagley, a successful creative executive at a large advertising firm. Driven to frustration by his work on a pimple ointment campaign, he finds himself losing control as he alternates between violent hatred of his work and self-righteous insistence on its value to the wheels of the world. After an unfortunate psychological incident, Denis develops a boil on his neck. A rather large boil, as it turns out, with a face and some capacity for speech, though initially it only spews advert quotations. Unable to convince anyone that the boil's words are not coming from his own lips, Denis resolves to have the boil lancedˇunfortunately, the boil has other plans, with designs on Denis' very identity as it grows ever larger.

How to Get Ahead in Advertising (pun intended) is a scathing satire, mercilessly attacking the world of advertising and the consumer culture that swallows it whole. Advertising itself has been lampooned for centuries, but few have had the nerve to question its very existence to the extent that writer/director Bruce Robinson does here. Bagley voices both sides of the argument, but our sympathies tend to lie on the anti-commerce sideˇthe boil is a sleazy, selfish, unrepentant monster, a creature whose every word reeks of salesmanship. A genuine tension develops as the battle escalates, and Robinson modulates his script's considerable humor with a darker subtextˇthere are many laughs here, to be sure, but there's more serious business afoot.

Richard E. Grant turns in an amazing seriocomic performance as Denis, whose internal battles become external to a frightening degree. Preoccupied with worry, driven mad by stress, and slickly self-interested, Denis earns our sympathy even as we grow to hate the boil as much as he does. Rachel Ward (as Denis' wife Julia) is credibly concerned but frustrated with her husband's mood swings, and Richard Wilson plays Denis' boss with a combination of doddery and cynicism. Few other characters play a significant role in the story, though Jacqueline Tong stands out among the supporting cast in an amusing turn as Julia's outspoken friend Penny.

In How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Bruce Robinson turns a standard tale of the stressed-out working stiff into a fanciful metaphor for the plight of modern man, indicting the advertising industry as well as the culture that tacitly encourages its depradations. Robinson's point is well taken, and he articulates it with style and intelligence on film. It's a challenging, leave-your-brain-on comedy, but well worth the watching. If anyone should fear the story of Denis Dimbleby Bagley, it's Madison Avenue itselfˇafter seeing this film, any advertising message I hear sounds as though it's coming from a ghastly boil.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion presents How to Get Ahead in Advertising in its original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio. Unfortunately, the nonanamorphic transfer is a bit of a throwback to laserdisc daysˇwhile detail (including shadowed textures) is very crisp and color is naturalistic, edge enhancement rears its ugly head from time to time, and there are some noticeable hairs on the source internegative. It's certainly a solid transfer in general, but behind the times with regard to 16:9 enhancement.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The Criterion Collection renders How to Get Ahead in Advertising in its original Dolby 2.0 Stereo format, transferred with clarity from the analog stereo magnetic track. Stereo imaging is impressive, as are dialogue clarity and frequency range, and low-end bass is quite substantial for a film of this kind. Absolutely no complaints here.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: This is a feature-free disc by Criterion Collection standards, with 20 chapter stops, optional English subtitles, and what appears to be the United States theatrical trailer as the only "extra" feature. The trailer is presented in 1.85:1 letterboxed nonanamorphic format, in similar quality to the feature. It should NOT be watched immediately before the main attraction, as it quotes many of the film's best lines and moments, and the American voiceover sounds sort of... generic, yet smarmy. Keepcase liner notes add production credits and reprint a (slightly edited) 1989 New Republic review by Stanley Kauffmann, but coming from the company that pioneered the "deluxe collector's edition," the supplements here are disappointing.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

How to Get Ahead in Advertising is a pointed, no-punches-pulled satire about advertising, commercialism and the people who implement it. Criterion's DVD features a solid (though nonanamorphic) transfer; supplements are almost non-existent, but the film is worthwhile. Recommended.


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