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In Good Company (2004) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 29 December 2004
Paul Weitz has an unusual, admirable talent. In “American Pie,” “About a Boy” and now “In Good Company,” he handles 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 that has compassion even for 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 unsuccessfully trying to sell ad space to sporting goods manufacturer Kalb (Philip Baker Hall), but he’s anything but a hard seller, and 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). He’s 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. (This is demonstrated by 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 is Dan, the other Duryea—may have known this and used it deliberately.) 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’s home life is secure and content, even though he’s stunned to learn that his wife Ann (Marg Helgenberger) is pregnant. They have two teenage daughter; Dan is especially close to the elder, Alex (Scarlet Johansson), 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 (almost) secretly unhappily aware that she’s leaving their home. A brief hug he gives her when she moves into her New York dormitory is touching.
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.

Carter is aware that the major method Teddy K. uses to increase profits is to fire staff, but puts this off 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 eagerly accepts this non-invitation. At the Foreman home, after that elevator encounter, he’s 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 Alex. When she runs into Carter in Manhattan, she almost immediately seduces him—on the rebound, he’s all too easy a target.

But the most important relationship in the movie is between Dan and Carter. Dan’s irritated at having a boss who’s exactly half his age, and apprehensive about Carter’s cut-and-slash 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. He’s not comfortable with the techniques of Teddy K., although his own boss 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. They are punctuation to 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 one or the other to lose. And 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. 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.

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.

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