Jessica Lomax on the influence of the Billy Wilder classic The Apartment on the British comedy How to Lose Friends & Alienate People...
One film cover stated that ‘movie-wise there has never been anything like “The Apartment”, love-wise, laugh-wise or other-wise!’ This was undoubtedly true of Billy Wilder’s film when it was released in 1960, but has been thoroughly disproved in 2008 by How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. In The Apartment, a man is bullied into allowing colleagues to use his apartment, partly due to the promise of a promotion. In How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, a film writer struggles between his integrity, and the possibilities of fame, money and dating a glamorous movie star, when he’s given a job at a high ranking film magazine. These would seem to be two different films, not overly similar, except in that they both contain a guy who is making some difficult decisions in relation to his personal views and his career. The similarities, however, are considerably greater.
First of all there is the neighbour. In both films she is a short, stout older woman who is often intolerant and judgemental of the main character’s behaviour. While Baxter’s neighbour disapproves of him as a serial womaniser, believing all the women she hears to be brought back by him, rather than his colleagues, Sidney’s is equally disapproving of his choice in women, (well, at least Sidney thought they were a woman.) A stock character, perhaps, but when combined with other striking similarities, the influence of The Apartment starts to become more obvious.
There is also the matter of the female lead. A guy falls for a girl in the office, not exactly ground breaking stuff. However, both these women just so happen to be sleeping with the boss, who is married, an affair the main character eventually discovers. The boss then supposedly leaves his wife to be with his mistress, although we later find out the wife really kicked him out. When the relationship between the boss and the main character’s love interest ends, she then responds by getting really drunk and is looked after by the main character. This is true of both films. There are obviously some differences, for example while Alison in How to Lose Friends gets ridiculously drunk and has to be taken home by Sidney, Fran in The Apartment is found in the title location, having taken an overdose. The fact remains, though, that in this part of the storyline they are fundamentally the same.
Even in the smaller details, there are small incidents with echoes of The Apartment that are not at all necessary to the storyline of How to Lose Friends, and yet are there. For example, in The Apartment, the boss gives Fran a record as a gift, which she can only play in the apartment because she doesn’t own a record player. Similarly, Sidney gives Alison a record, which she can only play in his apartment because, unsurprisingly given it’s set in the 21st century, she doesn’t own a record player. Although this scene is made to fit into the film well, it stills seems fairly likely that it was only put in because a similar scene was in The Apartment, as it could have easily been omitted, or modernised.
These are a few examples, and if you were to watch the two films and make a comparison, I’m sure more would be found, and I do not believe this can be an accident. In the unlikely event that no-one else on the writing, directing or producing team had ever seen The Apartment, it seems to me incredibly unlikely that Simon Pegg would be unaware of referencing another film. Anyone who has seen Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead or Spaced would be aware of how frequently film and TV references are blended into these, with varying degrees of subtlety, and I don’t think extending referencing of this type would have gone unnoticed.
I assume, then, that it was wholly intentional, in which case it is undeniably clever. One of the underlying, serious themes of the film is the decline of the quality of cinema. We see Sidney in awe of a classic actress no one cares about anymore, in contrast to trailers for the ridiculous film about Mother Teresa and the magazine that just panders to stars with money, regardless of the quality of their films. What better way to highlight this than within the structure of a classic film which seems to be falling into obscurity (I for one, don’t know anyone else who has seen it)? Perhaps I am giving How to Lose Friends too much credit, and it was merely that they thought aspects of The Apartment made a good film, and made use of them themselves, but I like to think not.
How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, it seems to me, borrows extremely heavily from The Apartment, for whatever reasons. However, even if you removed the similarities, it is still a brilliant film. The characters are believable and flawed; the storyline may not be overly complex, but nor is it completely formulaic as so many recent films have been; the comedy is varied, and almost unfailingly funny; and the points it has to make about the state of the film industry are pertinent and should perhaps be taken more notice of. Even if I believed it to be an unashamed rip-off of The Apartment, I would still say it is a fantastic film, and definitely a modern day equal to it, love-wise, laugh-wise or other-wise.