NEW YORK — `HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING'' isn't a very wild title; it sounds like an instructional film or a self-help picture. But the movie behind it is wild indeed. It's a savage attack on the advertising business and on the modern mentality geared toward buying and consuming things that are often useless, and sometimes dangerous - like cigarettes, one of the picture's main targets. It's also a science-fiction film and a horror movie, all rolled into one fiercely satirical package that went into commercial circulation after appearing in the prestigious New Directors/New Films festival at the Museum of Modern Art here.
If you consider the title literally, you'll have some idea of what ``How To Get Ahead in Advertising'' is about. The hero, Dennis Bagley, is a hot young ad man who prides himself on being able to sell anything to anybody. He has a high-paying job with a powerful firm. He also has a lovely life and lots of energy - everything he needs for his idea of the good life.
What he doesn't have is a bright idea to fit the latest product he has to sell: a new kind of pimple cream. Strain as he might, he can't dream up the right slogan, and the tension grows so strong that he develops a pimple himself.
But it's no ordinary blemish. As it develops, it starts to look like a face. Then it starts talking, spouting the kind of advertising gobbledygook that Dennis himself is growing sick and tired of. With growing horror, Dennis realizes that he has gotten a head in advertising - a second head growing on his own body, and threatening to take over his life at any minute.
I won't give away more of the story, except to say that it gets even crazier - and so does Dennis, who now hates advertising and his new head, and wants to save the world from both of them.
There's nothing subtle about the comedy that flows from this situation. Dennis has a foul mouth, whichever of his heads is talking, and some scenes are as gross as Monty Python skits gone haywire - as when Dennis starts destroying all the products in his kitchen, or when the new head turns out to be a glutton that enjoys slugging ketchup straight from the bottle.
As yucky as the film gets, its antiadvertising message doesn't get lost, and it always returns to its basic theme - that we're about to be suffocated by our society's glut of pointless and harmful products. That's a message worth heeding, and it's hammered out with relentless energy by filmmaker Bruce Robinson and actor Richard E. Grant, the same team that gave us the bizarre comedy ``Withnail and I'' a couple of years ago. The cast also includes Rachel Ward, who gives a surprisingly modulated performance in manic circumstances.
``How To Get Ahead in Advertising'' is loud, aggressive, and boisterously crude. But it has something serious on its mind, and that's more than can be said about many current films.