In Good Company
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Many (if not most) people have some experience with the effects of corporate takeovers and downsizing. Employees callously get kicked aside in favor of short-term profits. Companies get gutted by raiders with little or no understanding of the companies they're now controlling. This is dark territory that doesn't present Hollywood with many opportunities for comedy. So Hollywood has typically stayed away. Comedies about the corporate experience, such as Mike Judge's Office Space, are exceedingly rare. So In Good Company comes as a pleasant surprise. It's a smart and funny movie that manages to wring witty personal comedy, as well as a few well-placed satirical jabs, from the not-so-funny world of corporate acquisitions.

Writer/director/producer Paul Weitz, who first scored with the teen comedy American Pie and moved on to adult themes with About a Boy, has crafted a story that doesn't shy away from the movie's darker implications--the layoffs, the destroyed lives, the humiliation. This milieu could easily have become oppressive, but Weitz follows the model of the great Billy Wilder (as in The Apartment) by showing us how pain, when handled with some sensitivity, can be rife with comedic potential.

Dennis Quaid stars as Dan Foreman. He's 51 years old and the head of sales at Sports America, a weekly magazine. His life is great. He has a loving wife, a wonderful college-age daughter, and the respect of all the people he works with. His magazine has just celebrated it's biggest year ever, thanks in no small degree to Dan's casual, friendly sales approach that emphasizes honesty and integrity.

Dan's life is put into contrast with the life of 26-year-old whiz kid Carter Duryea (Topher Grace of Fox TV's That '70s Show). Carter works for a multi-national conglomerate named Globecom that specializes in corporate takeovers. He uses deceptive, worthless words such as "synergy" to describe his business philosophy (which is cribbed from Globecom CEO Teddy K). He's given the task of managing the takeover of Sports America, trimming its staff, and boosting revenue by 35 percent.

Dan Foreman has a rich home life. His daughter is now going to tony NYU and his wife (Marg Helgenberger of CBS TV's CSI) has just announced that she's pregnant. This is definitely not a good time to be out of work. Dan waits for the hammer to drop, while Carter takes Dan's corner office and demotes him. But Carter decides to keep Dan on staff. It seems Carter needs a good "wing man" who knows the business--because he has little experience in ads sales himself (i.e., no experience whatsoever).

Carter's being "groomed" for the next step on the corporate ladder, but his personal life is now in shambles. His wife has left him and filed for divorce. Now he has no one with which to share his business success. Here enters, Dan's eldest daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson). Carter and Alex meet in the elevator as Alex is visiting her father at the office, and Carter and Alex hit it off. He's honest with her and tells her "I'm totally scared shitless. I have no idea what I'm doing." However, as Carter guts Sports America and destroys everything that Dan has worked to accomplish, Dan has little patience for seeing Carter steal his daughter's heart.

In Good Company works, to a large degree, thanks to its marvelous cast. Quaid has just the right mix of strength and vulnerability to make us care for Dan without letting his situation become bathetic. Quaid has an old-fashioned, down-to-earth brand of charm. He's not phony. And this makes him a good contrast to the smoke-and-mirrors approach of Carter Duryea and Globecom. Meanwhile, Grace plays Duryea as a basket case. He's like a puppy dog, willing to sacrifice his pride in order to avoid the loneliness of an empty home. Grace has a manic energy that is tempered with his sad eyes. In one of his best scenes, Grace shows how Carter could be a powerful speaker. Throughout most of the movie, Carter is running scared, but during a meeting of the Sports America staff we see him at his best. The meeting doesn't start off well. Carter is still ruminating on his destroyed marriage, so be babbles incoherently about "synergy." But this is supposed to be a motivational speech. Gradually he begins to pull together; the words start to flow and soon the Sports America staff members are yelling "I believe." Grace doesn't always fare as well as he does in this scene. Sometimes he plays the comedy a little too broadly for my taste, as if he's still acting on That '70s Show. Grace is at his best here when he exercises the most restraint, as when he prowls the offices of Sports America contemplating who to fire and who to keep or when he reacts in stunned silence to his seduction by Dan's daughter, Alex. And Scarlett Johansson is marvelous. Her performance is all about restraint. While many other young actresses would be perky and energetic, Johansson is a bit remote and mysterious--and eminently vulnerable (as she was opposite Bill Murray in Lost in Translation). She isn't always "acting"; she knows how to relax in front of the camera and let a less-is-more approach speak for her.

Throughout most of the movie, Weitz's script does an admirable job of giving the corporate lackeys a sense of depth, but as the movie nears its end, the script turns to more conventional Hollywood-style developments meant to make everyone feel good as they're leaving the theater. But in these scenes, the movie sacrifices much of its integrity, with too much time being spent on making sure everyone gets his just desserts (life just ain't like that). But in at least one respect, Weitz pulls back from the creeping Hollywoodization and allows one crucial part of the story to remain open and unresolved--and all the more believable.

For the first three fourths of the movie, In Good Company gives us wonderful characterizations and situations. This is one of the funniest movies to hit theater screens in a long time. If Weitz had just shown a little more restraint from succumbing to Hollywood happy endings, he might have created a classic comedy. Nonetheless, this is a remarkable comedy with a performance by Dennis Quaid that is worthy of an Academy Award nomination.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Universal Pictures
Movie Web site: In Good Company



Photos: © 2004 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.