Company Man

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Guaranteed to cure you of any Cold War nostalgia held over from Thirteen Days and television’s Fail Safe, Company Man is a sub-par Woody Allen spawn, a screwball comedy barely able to muster a single laugh in its 81 minute running time despite slavish adherence to the comic formula of Allen’s early stage plays (Don’t Drink the Water is the obvious inspiration here), and a game supporting performance by Allen himself. Set in 1959, "a good time to be a white American male" according to its hero Allen Quimp, a nerdy instructor at a New England prep school, the movie attempts to explain how a monumental catastrophe such as the Bay of Pigs invasion could result from a white lie designed to please one’s wife. Writer/director Douglas McGrath aims for absurdity but achieves only cacophony as the wretched one-liners pile up and the stagy, stilted dialogue disintegrates into a yammering monotone.

The screenplay (co-written by Peter Askin, who also co-directed) must read better than it sounds because the amount of wasted acting talent on display here is simply shocking. Quimp (played by McGrath) is married to bourgeois harridan Daisy (Sigourney Weaver) who, when not firing off emasculating put-downs, longs for a life of adventure and privilege. When a touring Russian ballet star (Ryan Phillipe) attempts to defect, Quimp, with the aid of a student (Heather Matarazzo), poses as a willing CIA agent and in so doing inadvertently catches the attention of the real CIA. Unable to renounce his guise, Quimp finds himself on assignment in Cuba where he becomes involved in a plot to overthrow Castro (Anthony LaPaglia) with the aid of an over-zealous mercenary (John Turturro) and the recently deposed president (Alan Cumming, effeminate as usual). Woody Allen plays Quimp’s incompetent supervisor, a geriatric diplomat who, despite being fired from his French post twenty years ago, still wears a beret and casually orders Camabert cheese from his seedy Havana hang-out.

Surrounded on all sides by the real thing, McGrath, in his first job as leading man (he’s played bit parts in various Allen films), comes off as especially inept, delivering his lines in a ventriloquist’s flat drawl. His Quimp is an unsympathetic creation, an unlovable loser devoid of intelligence and wit. One of the running jokes is his obsession with grammatical perfection, and in one scene he relentlessly grills a hapless colleague (Dennis Leary) on the adverbial forms of adjectives. Unfortunately, Quimp’s geekhood is neither endearing nor funny. In fact, it borders on the psychopathic. "The country that can use the proper pronouns will have the proper objectives," he utters at one point. Self-congratulatory and smug, Quimp lacks the essential ingredient of the Woody Allen screen persona – that acute sense of worthlessness compounded by incurable nebbishness. McGrath, who is too handsome for the part, allows the question of his sanity to hang over the movie like a wet rag.

For all its misfires and miscalculations, Company Man is not the work of a hack. McGrath and Peter Askin have amassed some promising material. It’s hard to believe that the various foils Quimp et al. use to ensnare Castro (including poisoned cigars and a toxic fountain pen) are based on actual CIA operations. Oddly, the movie’s funniest scenes are the physical ones, as when Allen lights a French cigarette from a flaming effigy or when Weaver tramples her much shorter husband. The majority of the jokes, however, overstay their welcome, and we watch with mounting embarrassment as the actors try to breathe life into the attenuated punchlines. Not even the greatest comedians could restore this stillborn creation.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Paramount Classics
Movie Web site: Company Man



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