In Good Company

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 01/15/05 05:54:35

"The Most Damning Film Ever About Corporate Anonymity. Oh, It's Funny Too."
5 stars (Awesome)

In Good Company has the kind of plot that sounds like the idea of a sitcom pitch or some pandering middle-of-the-road domestic comedy. Fifty-some family man is forced to deal with a new boss half his age that just happens to have designs on his daughter. This yearís ďRickĒ with Bill Pullman took a similar, if surrealistic slant, on the same concept based on Verdiís Rigoletto. Calling In Good Company surreal would be a welcome label if it werenít so real; carefully observing not the situations but the characters and the world they inhabit to justify the eternal, disheartening question, ďwhatís it all about?Ē

Knowing very little about the film other than what I described in the opening paragraph, I was expecting another slice-of-life comedy from the co-writer and director of American Pie and About a Boy. What I didnít expect was to find was the most damning piece about corporate America since Changing Lanes and instantly makes a perfect companion piece. That film focused on the culture that allowed such behavior to take place, but In Good Company digs right into the office politics and the anonymity of the people underneath the suits that inhabit it.

Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) is in his early fifties. Heís got the nice house in the suburbs that heís worked years for. Thereís a weariness about him, trotting out in the early hours for business trips and often only seeing his wife (Marg Helgenberger) asleep in bed. But he does it anyway because he loves his family and wants to provide for them, even if it means taking out a second mortgage to send his oldest daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson) to NYU.

Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) is only 26. He may be the Dan Foreman of Yor, ambitious and hungry for the next stage of his life. Working for one of the global corporations owned by the entity known as Teddy K. (Malcolm McDowell), the latest takeover is of Danís sports magazines and Carter is boosted in with the task of raising ad sales by the standard 20%.

Before changing last-minute to the more pun-friendly, In Good Company, the film was initially entitled Synergy which is a far-better reflection of what the material strives for and reaches. The obvious and sometimes not-so-coincidental balance between Dan and Carterís lives achieves a delicate irony as how both succumb to injuries or where their credit card dollars are spent to the harsh veracity of how each must deal with the receiving and giving ends of rejection.

Paul Weitzís screenplay isnít a slave to overcoming obstacles in-between acts, nor is it about big speeches defining everyoneís life. It simply follows a nine-month period, beginning with the announcement of a pregnancy and ending with both a birth and a rebirth. In-between the characters go about their lives as lived and behave consistent with the corners they have been backed into. These characters are always introducing themselves with their full names, as if trying to remind themselves that they have an existence and arenít just another statistic on a constantly moving bottom line. Maybe thatís why the true emotions they show are over otherís shoulders and out of the line-of-sight that could diminish the faÁade of strength they are trying to sell to each other.

Quaid is absolutely superb in this role and it would be a crime to not even mention his name for consideration on this yearís Oscar ticket. He never yields for cheap comic hysterics or a need to patronize a superiority because heís been around the block longer. Itís a very difficult role to play it the way he does; seemingly on the verge of just wanting to quit it all but aware that rocking the boat would be far worse.

Topher Grace has been well on his way to becoming a solid presence on the big screen ever since going toe-to-toe with Michael Douglas in Traffic. The brand of dorky comic sensibility heís brought for years on That 70s Show is translating into something deeper and with that dry wit comes an honesty that makes him instantly likable. This is his best work to date. We see the cocky confidence that Carter has when sinking his teeth into his sale pitch, but the scared little boy still exists somewhere in-between the barefaced openness in his personal life and unbridled B.S. on the job; never more evident than the brilliantly-played trip back to Alexís dormroom.

These three characters (Dan, Carter and Alex) all have moments of clarity so precise that itís hard to catch your heart from breaking. Only Alex, as the little girl just finding her own as a woman, is able to express her feelings at the moment sheís experiencing them. Watch how Johansson responds to probably the most hurtful moment in her paternal relationship. These three performances are just about flawless and the support they receive only help justify that precision. Clark Gregg is the symbol of the one-sided, two-faced businessman as Carterís boss. David Paymer has his own down-in-the-dumps moment that is stunning in its straightforward appreciation and sadness. And Malcolm McDowell has perhaps never been more frightening as the Rupert Murdoch-esque CEO whose speech to the company about the ďnew democracyĒ has a Big Brother feel to it that is both comical and chilling.

Paul Weitz has a flair for these little visual descriptions. An early shot is reminiscent of the one in About a Boy as Hugh Grant walked in the opposite direction of everyone else in the shot. Only here, Quaid walks alone. He may not be able to resist the age-old gag of a new purchase being destroyed almost as soon as itís bought, but thereís just something perfect about the image of a broken new Porsche being driven away.

In Good Company is certainly a drama, but before you are turned off by the gravitas Iíve bestowed to the substance, allow me to substitute just how funny it is at times. Again, big laughs are gained from the performances and the truth of their reactions rather than the inheritance of a cheap guffaw. The realities involved certainly struck a chord with myself as someone who has never dreamt of entering the corporate stock-and-trade for many of the same reasons on display. Iíve often felt like Carter but know and admire more people like Dan. Ultimately, Alexís desire to bypass it all and write creatively is the happy medium that I can identify with. Despite leaving on a happier, if not completely happy, note, I felt like sitting in my car and crying for twenty minutes about the implications of how the business world can turn necessity into a wasted life. Of course, that all depends on your definition of wasted. In Good Company is one of 2004ís greatest surprises; an astute, perfectly fraught examination of how more often than not, life ensues and not wackiness.

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