2004, Universal. Directed by Paul Weitz. Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson, Marg Helgenberger, David Paymer, Clark Gregg, Philip Baker Hall, Selma Blair.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Some objectionable language; a sympathetic depiction of a casual nonmarital affair; fleeting rear nudity.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Movies, especially comedies, frequently tell us that there’s more to life than professional success and getting ahead. Too often, though, that "more" is defined in terms of being able to kick back, relax, have fun, be oneself, enjoy life, etc. How often does Hollywood take notice of a hero who values, say, building loyalty with customers and coworkers, or who actually has it together at home with a committed marriage and a happy family, as opposed to merely undergoing a clichéd third-act revelation that family is what really matters and that he’s been wasting his life?
In Good Company does this and more. Rather than merely giving us characters struggling (or not struggling) to balance work and personal or family life, the film itself strikes a dramatic balance between the office and the home. It’s not just about personal success versus professional success, it’s appropriately interested in both. What’s more, it’s also interested in personal and professional ethics, personal and professional integrity. Imagine that.
These themes play out in an emotionally resonant, reasonably satisfying story by writer-director Paul Weitz, and thoroughly engaging performances from Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, and Scarlett Johanssen. It’s not without faults. At times the satire crosses over into silly farce, and, while the last act avoids the most obvious clichés, it’s still a bit tidy. And some of the film’s basic themes seem undermined by an unfortunate subplot involving perplexing decisions by more than one character. But if these faults can’t quite be overlooked, the film’s virtues are rare enough to make the whole package worthwhile.
As he did in About a Boy with Hugh Grant and then-tween Nicholas Hoult, Weitz focuses on two protagonists, not just one, representing different generations, backgrounds, and values. The first is Dan Foreman (Quaid), a seasoned fiftysomething ad-sales manager for a sports magazine and a loving husband and father of two daughters, one in high school and one, Alex (Johanssen), on the cusp of leaving the nest. The second is Carter Duryea (Grace), a bright young up-and-comer whose fragile marriage is threatened by his all-consuming career at an aggressive media conglomerate that exhibits the sort of corporate-culture foibles that keep "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams in business.
What brings the two men together is a corporate merger. Carter’s conglomerate buys out the parent company of Dan’s magazine, and in the ensuing shakeout Dan’s corner office and position are given to Carter.
The scenario of an older, savvy professional forced to report to a bright but inexperienced and callow young company man has obvious cultural cache, not to mention sitcom potential. What makes this setup more than typical movie high concept is Weitz’s sympathy for both his leading characters — not just Dan. In other hands, Carter could easily have been a cardboard jerk existing only to be taken down a peg, an antagonist for Dan to suffer under and finally triumph over. Instead, Weitz gets inside Carter’s insecurities, ambitions, and inner emptiness. He may be callow and unqualified, but he’s also self-aware; he knows he’s unqualified, and behind his bravado is disarmingly panic-stricken.
Carter’s anxious self-awareness is disarming not only to the audience, but also to Dan’s daughter Alex, who initially mistakes him for an intern rather than anyone who could be taking her father’s position. Carter, likewise not realizing that he’s talking to the daughter of the man he’s replacing, admits candidly that he’s clueless and terrified. Yet even when he does learn who she is, he can’t stop being self-effacingly honest around her. Perhaps she’s drawn to him as to an abandoned puppy or wounded bird.
Carter, for his part, is drawn not only to Alex, but to Dan’s whole family. Carter’s professional star may be rising as Dan’s is faltering, but Dan’s home life is rock-solid while Carter’s personal life is falling apart. Just the thought of sitting together around a family table over a home-cooked meal, or even a delivered pizza, is an almost mythic experience for Carter. (Contrast with another career-and-family comedy, The Family Man, which paid lip service to valuing suburban domesticity over power and prestige while in fact having only ridicule, not appreciation, for the trappings of family life.) Carter envies what Dan has, and the more time Carter spends with Alex, the more he feels this kind of happiness within his grasp.
(Spoiler warning.) Carter and Alex’s early flirtations are natural and unforced, but their relationship takes an abrupt and unpersuasive turn when Alex, now on her own in an NYU dorm, decides to seduce Carter. That Carter would succumb to Alex I can easily accept, but I have a harder time buying this self-respecting young woman from a solid family so easily and off-handedly tumbling into the sack with a twerp like Carter, and one who has taken her father’s job at that. Granted an understandable level of intrigue about what it would be like not to be "cursed with a functional family," as she ironically puts it, this plot twist feels imposed by the screenwriter, not freely chosen by the character.
Even more disappointing is the aftermath when Dan finds out. Dan’s refreshingly forceful and direct response to Carter I entirely understand and support, but his heart-to-heart with Alex is a total cop-out: She expresses regret, but only for not being honest with her father, and he apologizes for butting into her business, and neither of them confronts the fact that what she did was cheap and degrading. This paternal lapse critic Jeffrey Overstreet insightfully contrasts with another scene in which Carter expresses gratitude to Dan for "giving me a hard time," which, Carter observes, no one had ever taken the trouble to do for him before. Granted, Alex has to spread her wings and make her own decisions, but does that mean dad should simply accept whatever decisions she makes without ever giving her a hard time again? Isn’t that part of the "curse of functionality" that Carter envies in the Foreman family?
Despite this substantial misstep, it can’t be said that the
film quite condones Alex and Carter’s affair, whereas it does
celebrate the stable domesticity of the Foreman household. "How
do you do it?" Carter asks Dan at one point. Dan’s colorful
answer won’t be embroidered on any pillows anytime soon, but I
must admit he points to an important part of the secret of a
successful marriage in a memorable way: "You just pick the right
woman to be in the foxhole with… and when you’re out of the
foxhole you keep your
Dan brings this same plain-spoken common sense to the buzzword-laden corporate-speak ("synergy," "psyched," etc.) now in vogue at his office (most pointedly in a farcical scene featuring Malcolm McDowell’s guru-like CEO Teddy K, who excels at creating an aura of significance with impressive-sounding but meaningless generalities).
Here, too, the film occasionally missteps: In one scene Dan criticizes Carter for telling employees they’ve been "let go" instead of telling them they’re "fired," arguing that the euphemism comforts the one doing the firing, not the one being fired. Dan’s high-minded objections are comically deflated in a later scene that finds him reaching for the same euphemism — but the larger point is that people really would rather be "let go" than "fired," since "fired" strongly implies termination for cause, whereas "let go" is more neutral as to the reason for termination. More often than not, though, Dan’s disparaging observations hit home.
Few if any actors working today could inhabit this character’s skin as persuasively and engagingly as Dennis Quaid. In such recent films as The Rookie and Frequency, Quaid has become the ideal older leading man, rugged, decent, and down to earth. Watching Quaid in In Good Company, it occurred to me that he’s doing the kind of work that Harrison Ford might have matured into if he hadn’t squandered the last decade or more of his career making dreck like Hollywood Homicide and What Lies Beneath. (Of course Quaid has his share of bad films too, including one in theaters right now, but on balance Quaid has certainly made better choices.)
Grace, in his biggest role to date, has perhaps the trickiest and most ambiguous of the three lead roles, and he more than rises to the challenge. His character is caught between Dan and Alex, and he has to be at once shallow and appealing, intimidated by Dan but credibly attractive to Alex. Carter comes with obvious resonances with Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, and, while Grace is a very different actor from the young Dustin Hoffman, he doesn’t suffer for the comparison. As for Johanssen, she has less to work with than in such films as Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring, but she provides the strong third corner required for the film’s triangle of relationships, and has ample chemistry of the appropriate sort with each of her male costars.
If In Good Company falls somewhat sort of the full potential of its ambitious range of themes and promise, it’s still a mostly honorable effort and an enjoyable film, and critic Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com is onto something when she writes that the film "always feels like a movie made for adults, which is more than you can say about so many contemporary Hollywood comedies." It’s not as sharp or quirky as About a Boy, but it has a stronger moral center, and the same humane, thoughtful approach to characters and ideas is at work.