Title: In Good Company
Year: 2004
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Play time: 
Director: Paul Weitz
Screenwriters: Paul Weitz
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson

It’s fun, once in a while, to lay odds on who will be Hollywood’s next mega-star, on the scale of Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts. The redoubtable Dave Poland has publicly placed his bet on The Notebook‘s Rachel McAdams, which strikes me as a risky choice; I’ll toss my hat in with Topher Grace, who has basked in unanimous critical praise for his alternately comic and dramatic turns in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, P.S. and now In Good Company alongside Dennis Quaid and the already almost there Scarlett Johansson. He has the looks, the talent, and — despite no one having seen the film that demonstrates this — the versatility to go in whatever direction he wants, and though part of me hopes that he will continue to choose quirky indie projects like P.S., another part thinks that he is as good a candidate for ubiquity as any.

In Paul Weitz’s In Good Company, he plays the sort of in-over-his-head schlub that will likely become his signature role, at least for a while. What’s somewhat distinctive about his schlubs is that they are usually as intelligent as they are befuddled. And so it is with Carter Dureya, a young Wall Street hotshot who learns that he is “being groomed,” though for what we never quite learn — presumably to be a senior executive, but it could be for the slaughter, for all we know. As part of his grooming, he is appointed as head of advertising sales of Sports America magazine, supplanting a 51 year-old veteran (Dennis Quaid), who is shocked to find himself working for someone almost precisely half his age.

Carter is everywhere perceived as an ass — an Ivy League pretty boy with no experience and a big ego, spouting nonsense words like “synergy” while all of those around him are shaking in their boots for fear of getting canned. But Weitz’s screenplay and Grace’s performance make Carter basically a good guy who has been partially corrupted by the corporate culture he is forced to conform to. Even as he goes about his presumed executive duties — firing people, giving pompous pep talks at staff meetings, etc. — he does so with a sort of amazement at himself, the vague knowledge that this isn’t who he is.

Quaid’s Dan Foreman is quite the opposite: a consummate family man who believes in his work and is profoundly stunned to be demoted on the whim of some executive. Staged with subtle comic relief by Weitz, the scenario turns out to be both amusing and incredibly depressing, to the extent that’s possible: I laughed at the actors and the above-par sitcom jokes while feeling the devastation inherent in putting your soul into your career only to be arbitrarily shoved aside. It’s a sitcom situation, given the set-up, but it’s also more, and Weitz sees that clearly.

This dichotomy permeates the movie, which is both breezily directed and somehow substantial. There is a love affair between Carter and Dan’s daughter, played by Scarlett Johansson, and it’s remarkable how lucidly it’s drawn: it’s a whim for her, and an utter desperation move for him, trying to bring a superficial conception of “meaning” into his life after being dumped by his wife; when Dan learns of the relationship, his reaction is almost heartbreaking. Yet the movie still feels lighter than air — perhaps because of the jokey script, or the nonchalant performances, or both.

In Good Company has something simple but reasonably powerful to say about the American workplace and the way it has ceased to become a second family for faithful employees. At the same time, it is an eminently pleasant movie, a pleasure to watch and seemingly over before it begins. Universal made a feeble attempt to push it into awards season, but I think it was mishandled: this film could have been a contender. It’s a crowd-pleaser, an actor’s showcase, and a curious synergy of light comedy and heavy themes. “Synergy” was the original title of Paul Weitz’s script, and it would have been much more appropriate.


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