Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Quaid, Grace Make "Good Company"


directed by Paul Weitz
starring Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Scarlet Johansson, Marg Helgenberger

Father knows best, but Junior still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.

That’s the gist of “In Good Company,” an inter-generational film that pits Boomer against Gen-Xer (or maybe it’s Gen. Y) and comes down pretty squarely in favor of the former. Even though its two protagonists are given equal screen time, the dominant narrative is that of Quaid’s pater familias, a sports-magazine advertising executive (aptly named Dan Foreman) who manages his employees the same way he manages his household—through experience, human savvy, and wry humor. Unfortunately, Dan’s on the verge of losing his well-worn authority, as both his professional and personal worlds are turned on their heads with dizzying speed: his beloved magazine, Sports America, is bought out by a soulless corporate conglomerate (is there any other kind?), while his family is shaken up by his wife’s unexpected pregnancy and his daughters’ budding sexual and professional aspirations.

Then there’s the other narrative—that of Topher Grace’s callow hotshot Carter Duryea, whose rise and fall criss-crosses with Quaid’s mirror-image trajectory. Fresh off his newly-minted success marketing cell phones to toddlers, the 26-year-old wunderkund is dispatched by aforesaid soulless conglomerate to head advertising at Sports America, thereby supplanting (and demoting) Dan. Carter has no ad experience whatsoever, and for bright new ideas can only parrot his company’s buzzword, “synergy,” which seems to be confined in practice to cross-promotion with some kind of crunchy cereal. To add insult to injury, the little punk, still licking his wounds from a recent divorce from a frosty brunet (played with trademark sulkiness by Selma Blair), begins schtupping Dan’s nubile daughter Alex (a peach-ripe Scarlet Johansson).

Without giving away anything specific, plot-wise, suffice to say that by the end of the movie, the paternal hierarchy is restored, God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the world. That should come as no surprise for anyone who’s seen the trailers. The surprise is how smoothly the accounting is accomplished, aided by a feather-light, unforced, and refreshingly dry-eyed wit. Like Paul Weitz’s last film, “About a Boy,” this is a movie about a boy learning to be a man that keeps its focus as much on the man as on the boy, thereby steering clear of unnecessary schmaltz. “About a Boy” was better by far, though, if only because the man in question was as much of a boy himself, and therefore had as much to learn, as the boy. Here, Foreman, no less than Carter, may have his little vanities punctured along the way—but in the end, he doesn’t learn so much as impart.

Still, the dynamic works. Quaid parlays his crinkly-eyed charm into an appealingly solid figure who’s bemused to find himself acting as a reluctant surrogate father to his own boss even as he bumbles about trying to find the right paternal footing with his college-age daughter. Grace, for his part, plays the upstart with an endearingly bubbly, almost puppy-like enthusiasm tempered by flashes of lynx-eyed corporate calculating that become increasingly difficult for Carter to sustain. After all, he’s just a kid, and one who (of course) never had a proper father to guide him.

The real villains of the piece are Carter’s superiors at the synergy-seeking corporation—the false fathers, played to the hilt by Clark Gregg and the diabolical-as-always Malcolm McDowell as the mogul “Teddy K.” Alas, the caricatures feel twice as cardboard next to the prickly three-dimensionality of the protagonists. As a consequence, the face-off with these forces of evil feels at once pallid and overdetermined, and the final vindication of Foreman’s lone voice of human decency rings only partly true. As an anti-corporate tract, it’s utterly unconvincing. Where it resonates more deeply is, interestingly enough, its anti-outsider subtext: i.e., don’t you fancy folks come in here with your trendy bullshit ideas and tell me how to run my business! For all its veneer of squishy humanism, “In Good Company” bears a deeply conservative core. The overt message—love your work, love your wife, love your life—is loud and clear. But what lies just underneath that message is a celebration of networking of the old-school kind, business done by the firm handshake, and the dominance of red-blooded masculinity. The man’s man, briefly in danger of being emasculated, ultimately puts the metrosexual sushi-eating whippersnapper in his place—kindly and firmly, of course.

Nonetheless, the movie succeeds in large part because it ultimately defies easy characterization. Carter in the end eludes both the framework embodied (and idealized) in Dan Foreman and that represented by Teddy K. And Johansson’s Alex, despite a slenderly written role, displays a mind of her own, and proves to be at once more aggressive and more skeptical than one might expect from the general patriarchal tenor of the movie. Synergy may be outmoded as a business idea, but “In Good Company” is a perfect product of our times: neither fully “red state” nor fully “blue state” in its sensibilities, it’s ingratiating enough to play to both sides of the aisle.

RATING: ** 3/4


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