Breezing into a season usually known for schlock comes “In Good Company,” a widely pleasing comedy that is consistently funny while deftly tackling difficult questions of business ethics. The film is comfortably familiar — with a classical comedy structure and classically cute Topher Grace — and yet it transcends the trappings of the middle of the road.
Although one of the film’s best speeches rallies against the scourge of the multinational conglomeration, what’s most at issue in “Company” is the underdevelopment of character and morals in young hotshot businessmen. Representing the honest capitalist, Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) gets up every day at 5 a.m. to commute to his job at the fictitious “Sports America” magazine. Head of the ad sales team with 23 years under his belt, he has built a family and a committed following at work — while still making time to play tennis with his oldest daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson).
But when his magazine is taken over by the soulless Globecom, Foreman is demoted and replaced by Carter Duryea (Grace). Duryea is a socially maladjusted, inexperienced (and unfortunately surnamed) wiz-kid groomed for success. Unable to make friends or even save his marriage, Carter gradually attaches himself to his new “wing-man” Dan, much to Dan’s annoyance.
Then he meets Alex; they start secretly dating, and everything changes (exactly as you think it would when two handsome people meet.)
Writer and director Paul Weitz is no stranger to the coming-of-age story — “American Pie” and “About a Boy” both helped teenagers and stunted adults to vicariously work through the unforgettable awkwardness of growing up.
Carter begins “Company” without any personality, clumsily putting on a grown-up costume engendered more by a hodgepodge of cultural cool than reality. His flat-screen TV and Porsche (even his wife) are empty status symbols dictated as essentials from without. When Carter emits one of his frequent exclamations — “Money!” “Tasty!” “Word!” “Amazing!” — they sound hollow and premeditated. Detached from internal meaning, his persona barely hides a scared little boy.
This lack of development has huge implications: Carter thinks nothing of calling a meeting on a Sunday or firing employees who have been loyal to the company. Weitz implies a failure of business schools, which seem to be generating incomplete human beings who can work concrete figures but have no sense of intangibles, emotions or genuine responsibility.
As Dan teaches Carter what business ethics are really about — Alex predictably takes care of the human side — the flaws of our capitalist, fast-paced society are cleverly exposed. Weitz especially has fun lampooning the touchy-feely attempts of business to create a positive work environment. Over the course of the film, all of the usual comedic elements surface, but applied to new subject matter they feel fresh.
Smart camera work takes advantage of the discomfort of closeups. Through only a few subtle camera shifts, Dan and Carter’s first handshake turns into an epic battle of wills — all thanks to the smart cinematography.
As is necessary for good comedy, the acting is spot-on. Quaid plays Dan on his last nerves, donning one of the scariest facial expressions to recently come from a handsome Hollywood leading man (he wrinkles his brow while popping out his eyes). Grace makes a welcome return to real acting after a bit part as a prima donna in “Ocean’s Twelve,” finding an admirable balance between entirely annoying and pathetic.
As for the ladies, Selma Blair hams it up particularly well as Carter’s pampered wife Kimi, while Johansson shifts her usual persona slightly to fit the role of the tomboyish Alex. Her voice drops a few octaves; she walks and talks with an awkward dominating sexuality that subtly balances Carter’s speediness.
Weitz’s sharp observations and condemnations of modern culture make “In Good Company” more complex than his past films. Several genuinely upsetting moments punctuate the comedy, such as the arbitrary firing of good workers. Their shock and dismay at finding themselves left without the ability to support their families resonate with layoffs in the current job market.
But corporate policy does not allow for compassion. Globecom remains veiled behind the siren sound of its catchword “synergy,” which preaches togetherness while only serving as an empty euphemism for the impersonal melding of bigger companies. In a way, Weitz pulls a coup d’etat on his advertisers — simultaneously condemning mega-marketing while bathing his movie in product placements. To give him the benefit of the doubt, he is reminding us that synergy is real and very, very irritating.
“In Good Company” proposes that maturity is something gained gradually from personal experience and family, not something learned from success in the corporate world. It is a modest message — but in this time of value-seeking, it is a fundamental one.