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In Good Company

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/02/05 21:28:32

"Very good - and it could have been very forgettable."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I don't know for sure, but I suspect In Good Company was a story idea that writer/director Paul Weitz has spent a lot of time refining in his head. Often, when a story has a long gestation period, the writer gets close to his characters as if they were real people. Characters become more well-rounded, not because the writer has particularly set out to make them so, but because that writer feels that he or she has gotten to know them, and "finds" things that make even the antagonistic characters more human.

Maybe I'm wrong; maybe In Good Company didn't start out as a much more straightforward comedy about a guy who suddenly finds himself working for an idiot half his age and is put upon because of it. Maybe Weitz didn't find himself liking the younger man more as he wrote new drafts before finally selling it. Maybe the characters in the first draft of the screenplay looked very much like the ones in the final film. If so, that's even more impressive. For now, though, I suspect that this is a movie that started as one thing but eventually became another (which isn't easy, either - it's hard to let the initial idea go).

The movie is still mainly about Dennis Quaid's Dan Foreman, the head of advertising sales for a popular sports magazine. When the publisher is acquired by a multinational, multi-industry corporation, the new owners bring in their own people, including Carter Duryea (Topher Grace). Carter's never worked in publishing before - he made his name on a project to market cell phones to the under-five set - but he's given Dan's job, with Dan now answering to a man half his age. When Carter's wife leaves him, he throws himself into his work, until he invites himself over to Dan's house one evening and re-encounters Dan's daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson), whom he had met his first day of work. They hit it off, which is of course going to cause problems.

This initially feels like it's going to be Dennis Quaid's movie, and in many ways it is. He's aging well, still handsome but weathered. He's comfortable in his middle age, though; he's learned how to prioritize his life, and he knows how to combine the experience that comes with age with the adaptability of youth. He's not completely at peace, of course. He sees the demotion as an indignity, but one which he can't fight: He's not going to find an equivalent position without taking a pay cut, and he can't afford to do that with one daughter in college, another in line to go as soon as the first graduates, and another baby on the way (and, criminy, he'll be seventy years old by the time that kid graduates high school). Quaid's performance is all kinds of great here. He spends a lot of the movie being put into positions his character would much rather not be in, and walks the fine line between making Dan seem either oversensitive to reasonable requests or pathetic for being walked all over.

But where Dan is in many ways already fully formed, and likely to be the same person when the movie ends as when it begins, Carter is very much a work in progress. He's one of those guys who has been goal-oriented all his life, and is just now realizing there's more to life than mere accomplishment. He's got the high-paying job, nice house, flashy car, and beautiful wife, and has no idea how to fill his life when she leaves him, other than with more work. He's not a bad guy, and in fact is rather likable in his fear of being revealed as an idiot. He doesn't realize he needs a mentor until he finds one.

The rest of the cast isn't bad, either. Scarlett Johansson is the third point in the film's unconventional triangle structure, and we don't really get to know her individually. We get that she's smart, and generally has a good head on her shoulders, but the movie isn't really her story. More noteworthy is Philip Baker Hall, a potential ad-buyer introduced memorably enough in the movies first few minutes that we know he'll play an important role later on. Marg Helgenberger, David Paymer, and Clark Gregg all give pretty good supporting work, and Malcolm MacDowell is entertainingly (and frighteningly) impenetrable as the tycoon whose company Dan and Carter work for.

Though Weitz's movie has a lot of comedy genes, there aren't a lot of obvious jokes (the most easily pinned down are Carter's initial fumbling around Alex). A lot of the humor is of the grim variety, as the depictions of corporate life are soul-draining; one laughs at the absurdity because the other option is crying. Indeed, the movie's quiet indictment of twenty-first century business and the arbitrariness of the corporate world is probably more effective than the screeds for which those practices are the main subject.

I can't say whether or not there's necessarily truth in this movie - I've made conscious efforts to avoid the sixty-hour-work-week/produce-now-or-be-laid-off environments whenever I've had to look for work, but it feels real, mostly because we like the characters. We like Dan's solid dependability, Carter's growing good intentions, and Alex's clean slate. We want Dan's life to get a little easier, and for Carter to be a little more empathetic.

Small requests, in the grand scheme of things, but we've got enough invested in these guys that they're enough for a movie.

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