by Anne Gilbert
A quick jaunt through any halfway decent video store is
enough to prove that Hollywood regularly cranks out dozens of films
like In Good Company or at least, that it used to. For
there is something quaint about this film, a small-scale mix of daily
life troubles and chuckles that makes it seem like something that belongs
in the classics section. But if In Good Company conjures up memories,
they are almost all good ones -- two hours in the dark with this one
raising the question: Why don't they make them like they used to?
it's because the movie gets so much of its appeal from an offbeat form
of nostalgia, but it doesn't seem to matter that the whole thing is
somewhat out of date. The central conflict is something akin to "Have
you heard of this newfangled phenomenon called 'globalization'?" despite
the fact that the film does not, in fact, take place in the mid 1990s.
Representing the good ol' boys approach to business is Dan Foreman (played
by Dennis Quaid, in a role that blessedly allows him to both work his
unflagging charm and still act his age), an ad sales exec for fictional
Sports Illustrated stand-in "Sports America," who has
a cozy house and family in the suburbs and a Scotch-and-handshake approach
to making deals.
gets thrown for a series of loops when his wife suddenly announces that
she is pregnant, and his older daughter (Scarlett Johansson, largely
wasted here) wants to transfer to NYU, move away from home and into
Manhattan. Then Sports America gets bought up by a multinational conglomerate
and Dan finds himself demoted -- to a position immediately below a hotshot
corporate monkey literally half his age. As Carter Duryea, Topher Grace
plays one of those clueless MBA stereotypes who speaks almost entirely
in "Successories" clichés and who pumps up his "team"
in an effort to get them "psyched" at the prospect of "synergy" before
heading into his office to figure out who to fire in order to meet the
ever-shrinking bottom line from the higher-ups.
The buttoned-down corporate setting is played mostly for
laughs, what with the ridiculousness of company basketball teams and
feuding parent conglomerates that screw up decades-old business dealings.
But really, it's just the setting for the funny and strange relationship
burgeoning between Carter and Dan. Writer-director Paul Weitz cut his
teeth on unorthodox surrogate father-son dramedies with 2002's About
a Boy, and proves here that he learned well. The
writing is sharp and funny, but most important, it is also vividly real.
The direction is equally adept, and it brings out the best part of the
film, which is the acting. Quaid is easy and smart as a successful guy
who is abruptly swept out of his comfort zone, and Grace is a revelation
as the ambitious and somewhat awkward Carter (Honestly, where did he
come from? He popped up briefly with some quality in Traffic,
but he's been hiding all this talent buried deep on That '70s Show,
hasn't he?). It's a tough role, because he is both the villain and the
hero, but Grace nails it, from his stuttering social ineptitude when
dealing with people on a personal level to his surprising insight when
it comes to understanding them. He makes it a pleasure to watch him
come to a crossroads where he must figure out if he will turn into a
shark or a decent person.
Unfortunately, since the Dan/Carter story is the meat
of In Good Company, the other stories (and characters) fall to
the wayside. It's automatically awkward for Dan to forge a relationship
with Carter -- that's built right in -- but it becomes doubly weird
for Carter when he finds himself attracted to, and then secretly dating,
Dan's daughter Alex. It's a premise that should make some family dinners
fairly awkward, and it is one that is played for a good number of laughs.
But as full and rich as the male characters are painted, that is about
and ill-formed as the women are. They are developed as little more than
set dressing, unfortunately, and this has consequences. Scarlett Johansson
is a stellar actress to be sure, and I raved about her in Lost in
Translation and Ghost World as much as the next person --
the air of irony and distance that she brings to those roles is enviable
and inimitable. But those same qualities make Alex seem somewhat calculating
and selfish. There is never an indication that she is as utterly flung
for Carter as he very clearly is for her, so her choice to seduce him,
and ultimately pursue the relationship, seems like a pretty stupid move.
Perhaps the problem is that she exists solely as a daughter and lover,
never as her own person, so we are left with little idea of what she
thinks or feels. Therefore they show her pursuing a relationship where
she will very likely break one guy's heart and has the potential to
seriously damage her father's life, but still want you to believe in
the character as smart and loveable. I'm not buying it.
this bobble, the overall film is clean and smooth. It stays small, coming
off as funny in the way life can be funny if you look at it right, and
tragic the same way. The characters, with less heartfelt performances,
might have been broadstrokes, generalizations -- the old guard dinosaur,
befuddled in the face of oncoming modernity, and the eager young Turk,
all ambition and energy, with no humanity or compassion. And the situations
may, at times be dated: a smart, successful guy in 2005 knows that sushi
is raw fish, unless his success comes in the form of being in charge
of his tribe of cave people. And the ending may be pat and fall short
of the rest of the film. But in the end, it doesn't matter. It doesn't
matter because this film is charming, it's well made, and most importantly,
it is a couple hours' worth of solid entertainment. There are so few
movies out there that are a genuine pleasure, that carry with them neither
dreary obligations to "quality" or unshakable feelings of guilt. In
Good Company manages it. Savor that.
©2005 Anne Gilbert