A film review by Craig J. Koban

IN GOOD COMPANY jjj
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2005, PG-13, 131 mins.

Dan Foreman: Dennis Quaid / Carter Duryea: Topher Grace / Alex Foreman: Scarlett Johansson / Ann Foreman: Marg Helgenberger / Morty: David Paymer / Steckle: Clark Gregg / Eugene Kalb: Phillip Baker Hall / Corwin: Frankie Faison

Written and directed by Paul Weitz

In Good Company

Life is apparently very good for 52-year-old advertising executive Dan Foreman at the beginning of IN GOOD COMPANY.  He’s got a fantastic family, two loving daughters, a job as the head of advertising sales at a sports magazine – Sports American, not to mention that he has one of those offices that all workers with lofty goals hope to someday obtain.  Dan is good at his job, and his helpful combination of earnestness, honesty, frankness, and vast experience is all working harmoniously together to land him a rather lucrative account with a most hesitant client.  Life could not be better for the veteran salesman. 

Unfortunately for Dan, disaster strikes twice, once on the job and once on the home front.  Well, the latter “disaster” is more of an overt walk-up call to a looming and inevitable mid-life crisis he is most certain to have – his wife has just revealed that she is pregnant (“When the kid is 18 and leaves home I’ll be 70,” whimpers Dan).  However, this new blessing that will come in nine months is small in terms of hardships that Dan experiences.  It appears that Sports Magazine has been abruptly purchased by one of those pesky media conglomerations that only Rupert Murdoch would love – Worldcom.  The head of Worldcom is Teddy K and sees phenomenal potential in a corporate hotshot named Carter Duryea and subsequently sends him in to replace Dan.  Carter takes Dan’s beautiful and tastefully minimalist office and job away from him.  However, Carter sees potential in keeping Dan on as an “awesome wingman” to his new operation.  Dan, very stridently, has mixed feelings.  Why? Maybe because Carter is a bit cocky, overtly and obnoxiously confident, likes to play foosball with his daughter, says the term “awesome” a lot…or maybe its the fact that he is only 26 years old. 

This is the somewhat ingenious setup of the new corporate dramady IN GOOD COMPANY.  Now, I say “ingenious” because this is a film that takes a setup that has been done countless times in previous films about corporate culture and kind of joyfully and methodically stands them up on there heads.  Previous films have detailed the comings and goings of young hotshots who are trying to make a claim in the big business world by allying themselves with a much older and more experienced mentor figure.  These other films also took great liberties to paint us a portrait of these nasty conglomerates as just that –despicable enterprises that eat up and spit out human resources cheerfully and willingly…all in an effort to downsize and make as much profit as possible.  Oliver Stone’s 1987 film WALL STREET comes to mind, a great film about a naďve and impressionable go-getter who gets cast under the spell of an older and experienced stock trader and later discovers, only when its too late, what a sick and deplorable business he’s in. 

IN GOOD COMPANY is a film that sort of plays like WALL STREET, but in reverse, with obvious comedic differences as well.  However, the film is revealing and intelligent in the way in which it feels like an authentic portrayal of what working in a modern corporate environment must feel like.  The film’s has the right tone and overall philosophy about the prevailing corporate mentality that has been plaguing modern North American society – one in which greed and the perverse exploration for money and profit is cornerstone to a company’s vision and the talent behind those profits – the people – are seen as disposable assets that can be let-go as easily as they are kept on.  In a way, IN GOOD COMPANY is very indicative of this terrible “slash ‘n burn” ideology that permeates corporate society. 

On another hand, IN GOOD COMPANY is a really fresh and humble film in the sense that all of the human interactions are very well realized.  The most surprising aspect of the film is in the way it honestly and poignantly portrays all of its characters, especially with Carter, Dan’s new boss, played in a charming and appealing breakout performance by Topher Grace.  You see, Carter is not one of those A-typical young A-hole executives who thinks that he’s is the omnipotent know-it-all that the company needs in order to survive, nor is he the textbook egotist that hates all of those under him and can’t wait for the opportunity to relieve himself of some of his company’s excess human baggage.  Carter is much more interesting, as a corporate character, than other ones from similar films in the past.  He’s actually very likeable, smart, shy, affectionate, and passionate about what he does, and actually goes out of his way to be liked by his peers and associates under him.  He’s kind of the antithesis to what makes most big business bosses tick – he actually likes people and what they do, and when it comes time to actually “let people go”, the after effects make him ill.  He’s not a vicious corporate figure – just one that has been spoiled all-too quickly by the tapestries and luxuries of his expeditious rise to the top.  He achieved success too quickly, and once at the top, he just does not see how to create the moral vacuum that is almost required for his position.   

That is the absolute key to the overall success of the film, which is noteworthy for where it goes, especially when you think its going in completely expected areas and then does not.  This is also especially true for the character of Dan (played in yet another restrained and strong performance by the underrated Dennis Quaid).  Obviously, in our modern business world, Dan realizes that it is not unheard of for him to possibly have a younger boss, but 26…c’mom!? That is a hard pill for him to swallow, at least initially.  When asked how much experience Carter has, he replies kind of sheepishly, yet honestly, “none.”  Carter is a pleasant and sociable chap, and his only real experience is with that sort of corporate and mind-numbing rhetoric on team symmetry and “synergy” and less with human interaction.  He seems to focus so much of his time on his job that his marriage of six months with his wife quickly fizzles, which subsequently leads him to planning hasty Sunday meetings.  He does not do it to punish the workers – he just wants something to do, and thinks that the workers also have nothing to do. 

At one of these Sunday meetings Dan, who is now Carter’s assistant, makes a large mistake.  He inadvertently invites him over for supper one night, to which Carter attaches himself to the invitation like a love-starved leech.  He meets Dan’s pregnant wife (Marg Helenberger), his youngest daughter Jana (Zena Grey) and finally and most notably his 18 year old daughter Alex (Scarlet Johansson), who is prepping herself to go to NYU and study creative writing.  The two, as one expects, hit it off rather winningly.  Scarlett is attractive and available, and Carter is amiable, good-looking, and wonderfully candid.  Behind her father’s back, Alex embarks in a secret relationship with Carter, perhaps not truly understanding and realizing how emotionally vulnerable and exposed he really is.  She also seems superfluous to the idea that this kid is also her dad’s boss. 

All of this sounds kind of pedestrian and formulaic, but writer/ director Paul Weitz (who last collaborated on the terrific ABOUT A BOY with Hugh Grant) tells a much more smart, revitalizing, and unique story.  The film's climate is kind of familiar, but all of the character dynamics and the overall push of the narrative are neither forced nor preordained.  The film takes a clever spin on basic premises: This is not another tired retread of a boss’ daughter dating the younger worker under said boss.  Instead, we get the boss dating the daughter of his own associate.  It's one thing for the hapless Dan to see himself replaced by a corporate big wig, but it’s a whole other can of beans when the replacement is 25 years younger than him and then is also dating his daughter. Corporate demotion is embarrassing enough, but having your daughter date your incredibly young boss…that’s almost even more socially awkward. 

Many of you who are reading this review may think that you know where this film is going, and let me say, without giving anything way, that it both goes down some of those familiar paths and then makes many curious and unexpected turns that you most likely will not see coming.  This is one of those films that kind of achieves the miraculous – it creates likeable figureheads in the dog-eat-dog world of big business, it accurately creates the mindset and cutthroat environment of corporations, it manages to present this business lifestyle in both demoralizing and complimentary ways, and it finally creates a sub-plotted romance between Carter and Alex that  ends both unhappily, yet realistically, satisfactorily, and respectfully at the same time.  This is a film that does not pander to its audience and give them exactly what they think they want.  The screenplay is smarter and more sly and sophisticated than that and has the tenacity to go down tangents that you may not appreciate or like, but it nevertheless stays true to its characters and interactions. 

The film is highlighted by great performance all across the board.  Dennis Quiad is one of the masters of effortlessly creating personas that are likeable, have charisma, and feel real.  He may not like the fact that Carter has taken over his job, but he sure has to dig deep and look hard for reasons to dislike Carter because, after all, he really is very agreeable.  Grace has the trickiest role of all, as he is essentially playing the antagonist that is not really antagonistic, but rather a young man on the emotional rebound who finds himself jumping into situations, both at work and socially, that he may or may not be able to deal with effectively.   And Alex is also another well-realized character who is effectively written, and is not just one of those obligatory love interests to provide dramatic tension.  Johansson creates a real flesh and blood figure that loves and supports her dad, yet secretly goes against his obvious wishes by lying to him and dating his boss.  There is one crucial moment in the film where, in a touching and deeply affecting moment with Carter, she behaves and reacts in a manner that is kind of hurtful, yet true to her character and how she feels.  Deep down, Carter may not want to accept her views, but he sort of begrudgingly agrees with them. 

IN GOOD COMPANY is a real surprise, an admirable, frequently and subtly funny, and richly satisfying film.  This is one of those rare film outings where not only is its heart in the right place, but also its laughs.  The film also successfully achieves a level of wit, intelligence, and unpredictability with its plot that makes it rise above the often-mediocre level of modern romantic comedies.  Very rarely has a film about the tenacious world of corporate America left one with such a warm and gratifying feeling inside.  It’s a genial film that still manages to portray harsh and bitter truths, not just about the workplace, but also about the often topsy-turvy world of relationships. IN GOOD COMPANY is sublime, sentimental, astute, slick, and creates believable and engaging characters that kind of lead you guessing where they are going to go.  Who would have thought that a film about the nasty side of big business would put so much stock in its human resources?

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