In Good Company is a manipulative comedy/drama full of overprogrammed button-pushing scenes, dated secondhand ideas, and sloppy sentimentality, but it’s so earnest and ingratiating that I just can’t bring myself to dislike it. The film is a step backward for writer/director/ producer Paul Weitz, whose last film, About a Boy (based on the Nick Hornby novel), featured much more difficult, lifelike complications than the pale ironies of his script here. The story is structured around a jeremiad against corporate capriciousness: A massive, Orwellian conglomerate, Globecom, buys Waterman Publishing, the owner of Sports America, the country’s leading sports publication, and replaces senior executives with its own people. Management hands the plum position of head of ad sales to 26-year-old Carter Duryea (Topher Grace), demoting 23-year veteran Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid). Before Carter came along, Dan had it all: a job he loved, a devoted wife, two beautiful, smart teenaged daughters, and a cozy home straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog. Ready to enjoy the fruits of his well-earned midlife security, Dan is jostled from his complacency by a series of unexpected events: his demotion, his wife’s sudden, unplanned pregnancy, and his elder daughter’s decision to attend New York University, taxing the family’s finances. Then, to add insult to injury, he learns that said daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson), has begun sleeping with the enemy: She’s begun clandestinely dating Carter, who’s been deserted by his neglected wife Kimmy (Selma Blair).
The situations set up parallel stories, in which Dan must rediscover what it means to him to be a man, and Carter, whose father left while he was a child, depriving him of a male role model, learns from Dan that manhood isn’t what he thought it was. Their conclusions, of course, are the predictably humanistic homilies of a thousand other Capra-esque movies about the dignity of the little man; what keeps our squirming to a minimum is the integrity that the actors bring to their performances.
At a ruggedly handsome 50, Quaid makes a persuasive argument that middle age is not at all a bad place to be. Weitz has written Dan as a little too saintly, too much the mouthpiece for basic, common-sense values, but Quaid has the gravity, empathy, and wit to give him depth and authenticity. Grace, a gifted light comedian, comes across onscreen as a bit callow and passive (he’s reminiscent of Michael J. Fox in similar roles in the 80s), but those qualities fit Carter, whose character is largely unformed throughout the movie, always attempting to conform to the expectations of any older man who’s nearby. As Alex, Johansson is set up as an example of what nurturing parents can do; with her confident posture and deep, provocative voice, she’s self-assured even when nervous or frightened; she has an innate understanding of her own character and a casual acceptance of her gifts and limitations. A natural aristocrat, she initiates the relationship with Carter on her own terms, and she decides when and how it will end.
Unfortunately, many of the performers in smaller roles get little chance to enliven their limited conceptions. As Dan’s wife, the always appealing Marg Helgenberger is little more than a noble helpmeet; Clark Gregg’s Mark Steckle is a one-dimensional corporate toady; and David Paymer’s Morty is a harried sadsack. Philip Baker Hall, though, makes the most of his two scenes; his auto-parts tycoon has the relaxed, man-of-the-world manner of someone who’s grown accustomed to his wealth and power. And 16-year-old Zena Grey, playing Dan’s younger daughter, is the rare mouthy adolescent who isn’t too much; she’s just offhand enough in her delivery to skirt both off-putting malice and off-putting cutesiness. Selma Blair also does nice work, bringing off a scene in which she’s both petulant and movingly wounded.
In Good Company is at its best in the scenes between various members of the Foreman family and Carter; Quaid and Grace have a satisfyingly tetchy chemistry that’s contrasted with the simpler romantic chemistry between Grace and Johannson, and, though Grace can’t match the other two leads in screen presence, his hesitant, George Gibbsish quality is winsome enough to keep your attention. The film falters, though, in its anti-corporate message, with much talk of “synergy” and “cross-promotion” that, while relevant to the present day, feels too much like the weak neo-Capra comedies of the 80s. Malcolm McDowell’s brief appearance as Teddy K, the haughty Richard Bransonesque billionaire who owns Worldcom, is thoroughly miscalculated. Lit from beneath so that he looks demonic, he gives a supposed-to-be-rousing speech about corporate unity that’s singularly uncompelling. When Quaid accidentally interrupts, you’re relieved until you realize that he has to give an even hokier speech, one that keeps seeming to end … only to pick up again after a minute. And again. And again. Quaid seems embarrassed, as if he wishes McDowell would interrupt so that he could shut up, and you completely empathize.
The villainous characters ultimately meet an appropriate comeuppance, and those who have been mistreated see their grievances appropriately redressed. It’s all handled in a terribly pat, sitcom manner, with most everyone ending up right back where he started and presumably belonged. Given its timing, following such well-publicized corporate scandals and the attempts of media moguls to circumvent antitrust laws, it’s disappointing in the extreme that the script has nothing new or particularly thoughtful or interesting to say about corporate shenanigans. Still, we frequent moviegoers will take our consolations where we find them, and there are ample pleasures to be had in the performances of the three leads.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
In Good Company / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()