3½ stars (out of 4)
The most touted film of last year was a buddy flick that featured emotionally adrift men in all their shame and glory. Liberating its characters from the confines of everyday humdrum, "Sideways" let loose two middle-aged guys in wine country, with one free to run aimlessly inside his own head and the other to do just the opposite.
It's a luxury in which "In Good Company," a satisfying, meaningful look at men and male workplace culture, does not indulge. More resonant in its context than "Sideways" and quieter in the humiliations it asks its characters to endure, "Company" taps into male-specific wants and needs and says a mouthful about the corporate world. Written and directed by Paul Weitz, he of the original "American Pie" and the Nick Hornby adaptation, "About a Boy," "Company" is conventional, sweet, Hollywood entertainment ("The Corporation" it is not), which at its best reminds us why that label is a compliment.
When corporate goliath Globecom acquires the venerable and aptly named Sports America magazine, young gun Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) is anointed head of advertising, elbowing aside its longtime ad guru, 51-year-old Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid). Carter, 26 and thus far heralded for his maniacal plan to market cellphones to tots, is charged with slashing the department's budget while upping revenue by an awfully doable 35 percent. He plans to achieve this throughpardon my Frenchsynergy.
Ah, yes: Where "Sideways" focuses on tres fashionable wine snobbery, "Company" sets its sights on a subject as infuriatingly en vogue and a tad more topical for us working hacks: conglomeration. (Full disclosure: My boss, Tribune Co., boasts a roster of newspapers, including this one, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun, television stations and the Cubs.) Why not put sports factoids on the boxes of Globecom-owned cereals, Carter asks? Why not advertise Sports America on those kiddy cellphones? Or better yet, give away kiddy cellphones in the editorial pages of Sports America. Pool resources! Cross-promote! Grow the brand!
Business-speak sounds even lamer coming from the mouths of babes. But Dan, swallowing his pride and subjugating his slap-'em-on-the-back, how's-the-family business ethos, agrees to stay on as Carter's "wing man," in no small part because with his wife pregnant and his daughter Alex off to NYU, he needs the income.
Out of the office, Carter's months-old marriage dissolves and a clandestine romance-lite blossoms with Alex (Scarlett Johansson, whose lethargic performances have yet to bowl me over). This is all fine and good and moves the plot forward, as lonely Carter foists himself on the Foreman family as Dan's foster son and Alex's secret lover.
But Weitz's vision exceeds his romantic-comedy plot when played out in the office environment, where a man's work, no matter how thoughtless or thankless, is his identity. (Feminists, start your e-mails.) Work is where a man-child boss with a fraud complex, a middle manager whose job staves off complete emasculation, watercooler gossips and a sidelined leader get on together for most of their waking lives.
But work these days, and particularly at a place like Globecom, is also Darwinism personified, where loyal lifers are laid off and old philosophies tossed aside for the guy with the fastest treadmill time. Maybe it always was this way, but contemporary survival-of-the-fittest comes gussied up with heartbreaking buzzwords like "potentialize" and "personal bandwidth," 21st Century banalities that mean nothing to the Dan Foremans of the world.
Instead of hanging Carter as a phrase-dropping, uncredentialed comer, Weitz empathizes with his ladder-climbing drive. Carter is, after all, a product too. And rather than stuffing Dan in a sentimental keepsake box, with his outdated Procter & Gamble education and loving family, Weitz takes the time to understand his uniquely 50-something priorities and even judge a bit.
But let's not let Mr. Director/Writer hog all the credit. The bond between Dan and Carter, though marked by genuine affection, avoids cliche in that it's circumstantial, even reluctant, and well-played. Grace and Quaid imbue what could have been caricaturesthe clean-cut, aggressive nightmare who's in it for the game; the red-faced, stubborn dinosaur who's in it for the relationshipswith heart, intelligence and great comic timing.
Staying clear of the Kabbalah antics of his "That '70s Show" peers, Grace has embarked on a serious film career, nabbing a bit part in "Traffic," serving up self-parody in "Ocean's Eleven" and "Twelve" and starring in Dylan Kidd's "P.S." At only 26, he embodies both naked ambition and vulnerability, while Quaid, 18 years after his steamy romp with Ellen Barkin in "The Big Easy," is more mature, commanding and easygoing than ever.
At the end of Weitz's "About a Boy," Hugh Grant's pathetic bachelor steps out onto a junior high auditorium stage to support his socially awkward child-friend in a rendition of "Killing Me Softly." The whole film leads up to this moment, and it's a gratifying, if a bit schmaltzy, conclusion.
With "In Good Company" Weitz risks more. Yes, you'll walk out assured that everyone is OK. But the truth is, Dan can only get older and more obsolete, and Carter, with his feet just damp, has a lifetime of wins and losses ahead of him, marked no doubt by a middle-aged crisis, true love and far too many long days at the office.
What kind of voodoo magic did Weitz pull to get us to sympathize with the ad guys?
"In Good Company"
Written and directed by Paul Weitz; photographed by Remi Adefarasin; edited by Myron Kerstein; production designed by William Arnold; original music by Stephen Trask; produced by Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz. A Universal Studios release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:11. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some sexual content and drug references).
Dan Foreman - Dennis Quaid
Carter Duryea - Topher Grace
Alex - Scarlett Johansson
Ann - Marg Helgenberger
Mortie - David Paymer
Eugene Kalb - Philip Baker Hall