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In Good Company Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 December 2007

Image Paul Weitz has an unusual, admirable talent. In “American Pie,” “About a Boy” and “In Good Company,” he handled unpromising material in unexpected ways, finding heart and soul in material that wouldn’t seem to require, or even have, such virtues. Although at 110 minutes, “In Good Company” is definitely too long, it’s a warm, funny movie with compassion for even the least of its characters. It’s also a romantic comedy which winds up the romance in an unusual but rewarding way—and in which the most meaningful relationship is between two men.

Dennis Quaid is Dan Foreman, the executive ad salesman for the popular “Sports America” magazine. As the story opens, he’s trying to sell ad space to sporting goods manufacturer Kalb (Philip Baker Hall), but he’s anything but a hard seller, and though he doesn’t make a sale, he and Kalb part as friends. Meanwhile elsewhere, at vast global conglomerate Globecom, eager-beaver, ambitious Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) wins laurels for his idea of marketing cell phones in the shape of dinosaurs directly to kids. His boss, Steckle (Clark Gregg), is pleased to inform Carter that the biggest boss, Teddy K. (an unbilled Malcolm McDowell) has just bought “Sports America” and Carter’s being moved over there as the head of advertising sales.

This shocks Colon (Ty Burrell), head of the magazine’s staff, and he has to tell Dan that he’s being demoted. As Carter rides the elevator to the very high floor housing the magazine operations, he chats in a nervous, disarming manner with attractive Alex (Scarlett Johansson), on her way upstairs to meet her father—whom we, but not Carter, learn is Dan. Carter is a bit giddy when he meets the unhappy Dan, whom he’s keeping on as his assistant, and blurts out that at 51, Dan is older than Carter’s father. Carter is delighted with his position, especially the corner office that had been Dan’s, but is all too aware that he doesn’t know a damned thing about selling advertising space. To him, Teddy K.’s creed is of utmost importance: synergy—the yoking together of different sub-companies under the Globecom banner. This means basically cross-fertilizing various GlobeCom companies; for example, Carter suggests putting sports “factoids” in boxes of crackers made by a company GlobeCom owns. This is perplexing to most of the “Sports America” advertising staff, but a few go all gung ho for this cross-collateralization.

Dan is stunned to learn that his wife Ann (Marg Helgenberger) is pregnant. They have two teenage daughter; Dan is especially close to the elder, Alex, a tennis whiz who wants to move into New York city and study writing at NYU. The scenes between Quaid and Johansson are especially convincing: they have the affectionate familiarity of a real father and daughter, even though he’s disturbed to realize that NYU is much more expensive than SUNY, the college Alex had been attending.

Not everything is going well for Carter. His wife of just a few months is clearly unhappy and intends to leave him. He tries to assuage his loss by buying a snazzy Porsche convertible—but is whacked by an SUV as he drives off the lot. During the film, Weitz—who also scripted—carefully feeds us small details of Carter’s background, and we learn he was raised by an uncaring mother, and didn’t really know his father. His wife and his career are all he has, and now his wife is walking out. He’s been left unsure of his abilities, awkward around other people and just a bit too enthusiastic about “synergy.” He has no friends, can’t make small talk, and tends to describe everything as “awesome.”

He’s aware that the major method Teddy K. uses to increase profits is to fire staff, but puts off doing this at the sports magazine as long as he can. After he insists that the ad staff meet with him on Sunday, a disgruntled Dan mutters something sarcastic about “why don’t YOU have dinner at my house”—and is surprised when Carter misinterprets the wisecrack as a genuine invitation. At the Foreman home, Carter is surprised but pleased to meet Alex again.

The story cuts fluidly between Dan’s problems at the magazine, with Carter’s timid but ruthless firing of almost all of Dan’s regular staff, and what’s going on with Carter and Alex. When she runs into Carter in Manhattan, she almost immediately seduces him—on the rebound, he’s all too easy a target. She’s mostly just experimenting with a guy she’s drawn to, but he’s all too ready to fall in love.

But the most important relationship in the movie is between Dan and Carter. Dan’s irritated at having a boss half his age, and apprehensive about Carter’s slash-and-burn managerial technique. Carter is unsure of what he’s doing: he doesn’t relate to the sports subject of the magazine, isn’t very good at managerial techniques, and uncomfortably aware that Dan was far better in the job than he himself is. The two actors work very well together; Quaid relaxes into a character of his own age, and is very expressive in the scenes with Johansson, Helgenberger (who’s underused) and Grace.

As for Grace, he’s funny, attractive, intelligent and a little gawky—a boy trying earnestly to be a man (signified by all those “awesome”s). He’s not comfortable with the techniques of Teddy K., although his own boss, Steckle, is a gleefully aggressive corporate weasel in the modern style. Carter recognizes that Dan has built an effective team who are supportive of one another, but feels he has to impose Teddy K.’s “synergy” beliefs.

The cast is exceptionally good; after the three leads, it includes Helgenberger, David Paymer (as a long-time employee and friend of Dan’s), Clark Gregg, Philip Baker Hall and tough survivor Malcolm McDowell. Weitz creates a tangible sense of community in Dan’s staff, then bit by bit, shakes it to bitter pieces. There’s a naturalness and flow to almost all the scenes, suggesting fruitful rehearsals. In terms of technique, Weitz is understated and natural, but does use closeups very well in a classic Hollywood fashion. His commentary reveals he was thinking of how Sergio Leone used closeups in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” but casual viewers aren’t going to make this connection—and the movie plays better without this awareness. The closeups are punctuation in a couple of the more intense scenes, and the cast is up to the task of these tight shots: there’s no overacting, not even from Dennis Quaid, who has a tendency that way. Weitz is a very careful director.

The intimate scenes are surprisingly tender. When Alex gets Carter up to her dorm room and goes about preparing for an evening of sex, we share Carter’s jittery anticipation. Alex is good at tennis, and has games with both her father and Carter which are expressive of their attitudes toward one another. In a story like this, you’d expect either the father or the youthful boss (and lover of the father’s daughter) to be shown to be deeply wrong in what they’re doing, in the attitudes they’re expressing. But Weitz sees to it that we’re very quickly invested in both of them; we don’t want to see either of them lose. This feeling is so pervasive, so important to the movie that the relationship between Carter and Alex definitely takes a back seat to that of the two men; the movie even concludes on a phone call between Carter and Dan. It’s not as simple as Dan becoming Carter’s surrogate father, not as obvious as them becoming friends; instead, those elements reinforce each other, and their business relationship as well. They learn from one another, but it’s Carter who has the most to learn.

There are a lot of threads to this narrative, and not all of them are handled perfectly—the story of Ann and her pregnancy merely glances in, so to speak, and the stories of the fired “Sports America” employees have to be resolved in quick glimpses. He’s a little fussy and obvious in matching shots, and his staging of actors isn’t especially graceful. But Weitz has taken on a large task here, and is definitely successful with the important things. He has an unusual approach to Hollywood comedies; if he can keep up this level of work, he may turn out to be someone very special.

This is another of the many films that, while it does look better in high definition, the process doesn’t really add very much. The blacks are deep and rich, the sets are handsome—particularly the Foreman home (a real house rather than a set) and a couple of the executive offices. Facial details are enhanced, which is always a plus, but overall, this is hardly a high definition showcase.

The handful of brief featurettes included as extras are really just a standard making-of publicity piece clumsily broken up into several sections. The most interesting may be “Real Life,” a series of talking-head interviews with some of the staff of “Sporting Age” magazine, the oldest sporting periodical in the U.S.
The commentary track with director/writer Paul Seitz and Topher Grace is relaxed and genial; Seitz is open and unguarded about his intentions and inspirations, and seems intelligent and likeable. So does Grace, though he doesn’t have as much to say as Seitz. The commentary track is, like the film itself, modest and amusing, though Seitz does make an especially telling point when he says that too many people think “cynicism is the most mature way of processing reality.”

Note: the Globecom logo is two hands gripping each other, exactly how in “White Zombie” Bela Lugosi commanded the living dead. It seems possible that Weitz, movie-savvy enough to reference the name of the great Dan Duryea—one of the main characters is Dan, the other Duryea—may have known this and used it deliberately.

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