Imagine the pitch
for this movie: an advertising executive
, stuck on a campaign for a pimple cream
, begins to undergo a nervous breakdown
. As he starts to question the morality
of his profession, a gigantic boil
begins to form on his neck. The more he desires to leave the advertising game, the larger the boil grows, eventually sprouting hair, an eyeball
, and speech capabilities. It soon becomes evident that Denis Bagley
, our ad exec, is either growing a manifestation of his dark impulses, or he's gone completely 'round the twist
Basically, as I watched this glorious rip on advertising and duality, I wondered how on earth this movie made it past said pitch.
Richard E. Grant stars as Bagley in Bruce Robinson's 1989 followup to his cult success Withnail and I. Almost as stunning as Grant's manic presence on the screen is the subdued shock of Rachel Ward, playing Bagley's wife Julia. Also notable is Richard Wilson's role as Bagely's staunch and very British boss, an old salt in the advertising business, and maybe one minute worth of screen time from Tony Slattery (now famous for his time logged on Whose Line Is It Anyway?).
The rest of this writeup will be spoil ridden, so if you plan on seeing the movie and being surprised and shocked by it, go saturate yourself in infomercials and MTV for a while.
The film opens with a Bagley giving a heated lecture on the subject of the housewife as a target market. You can tell by the way this man strides and speaks, by the way he refuses to feature a sparkling 22-year-old in a campaign geared towards middle-aged women, that he is an impeccable salesman: this is a man who could sell condoms to the Pope.
He retreats immediately afterward to his office, where he attempts to conjure the magical campaign that will sell some accursed pimple cream in a flooded market. He meets his wife for lunch, but only alienates her with his chain smoking and incessant yelling on the subject of zits, blackheads, and boils. His afternoon meeting with his boss proves just as unsuccessful, and his train ride home leaves him dejected, until he finally snaps as two business men and a priest pick apart a newspaper article about a drug bust.
Bagley flips, insisting that they shouldn't believe a word of the article because it's filled with may have's and might've's. He begins a tirade on advertising that ends up driving his fellow passengers to get off the train a stop early.
The dinner party at Bagley's house (one of Slattery's two appearances) goes off just as famously when he begins an outright attack on the integrity of his wife's vegan friend, Penny, insisting that she's just as susceptible to the whims of advertisers as anybody else (and that she eats meat when she's all alone). The dinner party breaks up as Penny storms out, and Bagley hits the epiphany that he has been living a life of destruction.
Immediately the next morning, he begins emptying every product in his household that has been tainted by the touch of advertising. Julia implores him to calm down and talk with his boss before he carries out his ultimate plan of destroying his television in the middle of a commercial for itself. She also points out that his stress is probably the cause behind his behaviour, and that he even has developed a boil: precisely the thing his pitched producted is supposed to prevent.
Undaunted, Bagley visits his boss and presents him with the only thing in his career that ever meant anything to him -- an anti-smoking ad that never made it to the public eye -- and hands in his resignation. His boss refuses to accept, regaling Bagley with a story about a similar nervous breakdown he had in his youth, and insists the neurotic ad exec takes a holiday. Bagley refuses and marches out, but is still perturbed: by nighttime, his boil has gone from the size of a pea to that of a tomato.
That night, Bagley dreams about cartoon birds urging him to throw rocks through windows in order to sell burglar alarms. He awakes to find that the boil on his right shoulder has sprouted a face. "Hi ya, hansome," it says, winking.
Naturally, Bagley immediately runs out of his house, half naked and screaming that his boil has gained sentience.
Julia, concerned, calls for a doctor, who chases Bagley down and subdues him. The doctor, fearing that Bagley may have given a psychological importance to this "new head," refuses to lance the boil, and instead asks Julia to take down anything it might have to say until he can get an appointment for Bagley with a psychiatrist. When Bagley comes to, he and Julia have a civil dinner that takes a turn for the worse as the boil begins to wheel off into a pitch for denture cream. Julia becomes irate, insisting that Bagley is fabricating the voices himself, despite the fact that he tries his hardest to work his boil's pitches into some semblance of a conversation.
The next morning Bagley retreats to his study to make a film about what he believes is the insidious nature of his profession. He is tired of selling the world items they need only because he tells them they need them. He believes armaggedon is about to occur, but instead of with atom bombs, it will be through the device of fast food hamburgers. The integrity of his tirade may be diminished by the fact that he's wearing a cardboard box around his head (emulating, in a childlike fashion, a television set) in order to not disturb the boil. It awakes, however, and immediately demands a cigarette. Bagley complies, if only it will shut the thing up, and rushes out to find one.
He immediately runs into his housekeeper, who is a little stunned by the box on his head and his request for a cigarette (which he insists he no longer smokes) and a light (he cringes at the vile taste and expresses how happy he is that he's quit). He then brushes off his wife as he hurries off to finish his video.
The next time we see Bagley, he's in his psychiatrist's office, reluctantly explaining why he's leaving his profession. His psychiatrist insists that the boil's voice is a manifestation of a figure of authority, possibly someone in his family. The boil takes this opportunity to chirp up and demand Bagley talk about his grandfather, a man who broke into a zoo in the early 1900's to have sexual relations with a kangaroo or, perhaps, a wallaby. At the psychiatrist's behest, Bagley takes a look at his boil: it has grown a moustache, just like his grandfather. Even worse: the boil looks just like Bagley. This prompts a blackout, and Bagley is wheeled away to the hospital to await surgery.
As if things hadn't gotten strange enough, Bagley has lost control of his limbs upon awakening, and the boil's voice is even louder, more domineering. After a brief row, a nurse comes in with a plate of food, despite Bagley's earlier insistence that it didn't matter whether or not he was hungry, because he couldn't move his arms... or, wait... no, his boil has seized control! His arms claw at the bandages! The boil grows to the size of his head! His head shrinks to the size of the boil! Quickly, the new, moustached head of Bagley rebandage's the paniced, screaming boil on his left shoulder and consumes the fish sticks in a brutal orgy, at one point just squeezing tons of ketchup into his mouth and tossing the bottle on the floor.
Bagley is literally a new man. He strides into the office after his surgery and confidently announces that he plans to tackle the pimple cream account once and for all with a bold new plan: drive up the market demand by first making boils and zits fashionable (sparked off by a music video campaign featuring an obese, boil covered woman singing an atrocious version of My Generation).
At home, however, things are a bit frosty. Julia feels alienated by the new Bagley, as she confesses to Penny the next night at the beginning of her and Bagley's anniversary party. She talks about a dream she had: her husband wasn't really who he was, he had switched places with the boil. In the dream was a briefcase that the boil urgently wanted her to peek into, and the combination to said briefcase. Julia also reveals, in the strictest secrecy, of course, that Bagley is absolutely ravenous in bed, hot for sex at all times, and it has disturbed her greatly.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Boil Bagley is revealing his plan to the lanced ghost of himself on his shoulder: he has destroyed the video he made, along with Julia's diaphragm. He plans to impregnate Julia that night, and bring forth into the world a little boil of his own. The boil swears he'll do everything in his power, but what can he do now?
Later at the party, Penny is spreading the news about Bagley's sex drive to various people, including his coworker's girlfriend, Monica. During dinner, Bagley has a rather hilarious conversation with Monica about why his ad campaign for boils will work, culminating in his sales pitch for a hydrogen bomb: "Our bombs will sell because they have an extra ingredient that Russia doesn't have: peace." The boil still has its voice, though, and lashes out in the form of an insult towards Bagley's boss. Bagley runs off and drugs the boil with a dose of glue.
Down on the dance floor, Julia still refuses to dance with Bagley, so Monica ends up in her place, causing some confusion to the boil, who is frantically trying to warn whomever it is Bagley is dancing with that a night of uninterrupted fucking is in the near future. This, of course, causes chaos, but doesn't save Julia.
In the middle of the night, Julia is awakened by the boil speaking to her, and has to eventually listen through a vacuum hose to find out where Bagley has hidden his suitcase. She steals down to the garage (note the I ♥ Boils bumper sticker on Bagley's boot hatch) and finds the videocassette. She begins watching Bagley's final message to her, his tirade against advertising, when Boil Bagley wanders down in the middle and fulfills his end of the conversation on tape: everytime Bagley hears the boil, Boil Bagley speaks.
The last half of the tape, the half we didn't see before, reveals Bagley's final paranoid realization. He fears that the destruction of the world's rainforests will result in a world commodity crisis, and that commodity would be oxygen. Brazillians would be setting the prices for air, just like the Arabs set the prices for oil. You want to breathe? You pay the price.
Boil Bagley, enraged, turns off the television, resulting in Julia leaving him for good. The former Bagley, now very close to death, claims triumph, but Boil Bagley rides off into the sunset, proclaiming himself as a member of a vital role in society: he who sells things to the masses so they have the desire to progress with technology. His final epic speech on the necessity of advertising is cast against swelling music, as if he were to end it with "Tomorrow is another day."
So there you have it. I've seen a lot of strange movies in my time, but the thing that really strikes me the most about this film is the Hollywood polish of what is most definitely not a Hollywood film. Music swells, straightforward scenes with the occasional ambitious crane or five minute long shot, and a script that, at times, almost seems like a very filmic play all add up to something that, when coupled with the heavyhanded, anti-advertising dogma, doesn't quite make for subtle satire, and isn't quite as important as the director wants it to be, but is definitely a worthwhile watch.