How to Get Ahead in Advertising is certainly one of the stranger films in the Collection. It's also one of the funniest, thanks in large part to Richard E. Grant's performance. The actor was also central to Robinson's other Criterion entry, the equally dark and biting Withnail and I, and he throws himself into this role with a kind of energy that would seem reckless in any other movie, but seems almost certainly essential here.
Grant plays the kind of cynical ad executive we've seen plenty of times before in films before and after this late-80s entry. The difference comes when a creative blockage on a pimple cream account turns into an actual boil on the side of his neck, which begins to grow and grow until it eventually sprouts hair, then eyes, then begins talking. Eventually, this new head takes over, and Grant's original consciousness is left to cling to life as a boil on the side of his alter-ego's neck.
This all sounds rather Cronenbergian, but every aspect of the film is so infused with a John Waters-like campy wink that it would be difficult to imagine anyone being scared or disturbed by the film. There are, admittedly, some vague comparisons to be made between this film and Cronenberg's earlier Videodrome (also in the Collection, and in mine), most notably a totally unlikable anti-hero devoted to underestimating the public, the alteration of the human body - almost always present in Cronenberg's films - and the use of videotape. But Robinson wants to explore the psychological and sociological implications of modern advertising almost exclusively, and the second head Grant's character develops is merely a means to an end (and a clever play on the film's title).
How to Get Ahead in Advertising is not a subtle film, and your response to it will most likely depend on whether or not you can bear the constant harping on the film's theme, which is, I'm sure quite self-consciously, incessant. But Grant's complete faith in the material won me over, and I was laughing too much to bother getting annoyed at being preached to. Anyway, if a product isn't low in something, it must be high in something else, right?