Have you ever had a chip on your shoulder? Of course you have, we all have from time to time, but have you ever had a grotesque, obnoxious and moustache wearing boil on your shoulder that is determined to undermine your morals, ideologies and sanity in front of all those around you?! I sincerely hope, for your sake, that the answer is no!

 This is, however, a predicament faced head on by advertising executive Denis Bagley in director Bruce Robinson’s follow-up feature to the British cult classic, Withnail and I. At times a farcical kitchen sink drama and at others a scathing satirical jibe at the ruthless manipulation of everyday consumers in the world of contemporary media, How To Get Ahead In Advertising is a black comedy that still poses some pertinent questions in the 21st century. 

The film sees Robinson team up once again with Withnail himself, Richard E. Grant, as the cynically self-indulgent Denis Bagley who encounters a creative slump whilst trying to devise an engaging campaign to market a new boil removal product for his reputable advertising firm. He becomes so hopelessly embroiled and stressed in his failing attempts that he falls victim to a repulsive puss-filled menace of his own – the eponymous ‘head’ in the film title’s thinly veiled pun – which represents a physical manifestation of the pressures and paranoia of modern living. 

Grant is the undeniable star of the film, dominating almost every scene with the eccentric physicality and strangely arrogant charm that launched his career in his last collaboration with Robinson. Supporting performances from Rachel Ward as the exasperated yet extremely tolerable Julia Bagley and John Shrapnel’s Psychiatrist serve their purpose but fail to get even the tip of their nose into Grant’s spotlight. 

Bagley becomes disillusioned with effortlessly conning the susceptible public into buying products they don’t really need and it is this guilty conscience that cultivates the emergence of the boil, whose agenda is to oppose this moral resurgence and preserve the tyrannical bully in Bagley’s professional capacity. Grant’s portrayal of Bagley’s exacerbating neurosis ranges from hilarious to utterly ridiculous at times and the power struggle between him and his prosthetic nemesis is one of the most surreal hero/villain battles I’ve ever seen in a film. 

One particularly interesting idea that the film presents to the viewer is the concept of spectator superiority and how it is undermined so we feel as objectified as the film’s protagonist. As film viewers, we are often perched in the privileged position of knowing certain details about the characters before that information is even disclosed to them, but in How To Get Ahead In Advertising our apparent superiority is subsided because Bagley frequently brings it to our attention that we are all just victimised subjects of conformity and mere receptacles to the popular culture enforced by “Big Brother’s” self-satisfying capitalist agenda. We are, apparently, puppets to the system as he is a puppet to the dictatorship of the boil and although this may not be the most revolutionary cinematic subtext it is well structured and certainly gives you something to ponder. 

The boil itself looks like a disgusting prop borrowed straight from a David Cronenberg film: imagine something fleshy and weird from Videodrome or The Brood crossbred with a whoopee cushion.

 This abhorrent little pustule actually alludes to something more widely acknowledged now than it did in the late 1980’s when it was released: adherence to the aspirational pressures of gaining the body-beautiful instilled by the media…but for an uncompromisingly vain man! This subversion of the commonly female orientated gender stereotype would have been quite a refreshing perspective back then and perhaps can be seen as an inaugural prophecy in British cinema to the metrosexual anxiety of the 21st century.

 Despite these interesting little metaphors distributed all over the place, the film does have a few shortcomings. The orchestral score is at times a bit too sickly-sweet and overly pronounced for a film that looks as low budget as it does, and is. One of the film’s recurrent pieces of music is Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘Symphony No. 3’ which many would recognise as the title theme for the 1995 family film Babe and, as reflexive viewer, I found it difficult not to associate this tune with singing mice and a spontaneous craving for sausages. The child-like, family connotations in the instrumentation are actually affirmed in a scene where two loved-up animated birds fly into Bagley’s house as he sleeps and exit through the TV. This was way too Mary Poppins for my liking and bordered on being alienating, if not definitely pointless. 

The film also begins to drag on aimlessly in the middle but manages to recuperate its form near its expository conclusion where Bagley, in his power-crazed state, soliloquises a grand yet sobering speech implicitly stating how we may never be able to escape from the perpetual and indefinite struggle be independent individuals from all outlets of capitalist control because he will personally make sure of it! The film does little to glamorise contemporary advertising in the same way that Hollywood has done little to enchant the creative juices of Bruce Robinson in recent years, but with his new film, The Rum Diary, soon to be hitting a cinema near you, and starring the forever charismatic Johnny Depp, maybe his fortunes will change. As with most things, only time will tell.

About The Author

Ross is a Screen Studies graduate from Manchester who can be found beaming with joy rather than wincing with discomfort at cinema's oddest, most experimental and depraved offerings.