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MOVIE REVIEW

'Company' sells itself short

"In Good Company" is about a 50-something Manhattan ad sales man named Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) and the pressures he faces when his wife (Marg Helgenberger) becomes unexpectedly pregnant, his tennis jock daughter (Scarlett Johansson) wants to transfer to NYU and become a writer, and a multinational conglomerate buys the magazine he works for and installs a 26-year-old kid (Topher Grace) as Dan's new boss.

Actually, that's what the movie's only nominally about, and as corporate comedy-dramas go, "Company" is cheerful and easy to watch but surprisingly inept in the telling. Writer-director Paul Weitz made his name with the "American Pie" movies, then proved he could play with the grown-ups with "About a Boy." Here, sadly, he backslides: the pacing is flaccid, the lighting harsh, the actors too heavily made up. The pop songs on the soundtrack paw at you like an overeager golden retriever, and while Weitz wants his dialogue to sound the way people really talk -- he's aiming for James L. Brooks territory -- too often it just rambles. He's better when he's shallower, and the film sometimes feels truest when Weitz is pitching wisecracks.

Besides, the more interesting movie that lives inside "In Good Company" is the one that stars Grace. The prodigiously charming young actor takes the role of young corporate climber Carter Duryea and turns it into a portrait of a baby having a nervous breakdown. Carter is amoral, funny, confident, and slick as hell; he arrives at Sports America magazine having successfully convinced his bosses at Globe.com that toddlers will buy cellphones if they're shaped like toys. "You're being groomed," he is told and it's even let slip that Globe.com's mercurial CEO, Teddy K., actually knows his name. (Teddy K. himself turns up late in the movie, played by Malcolm McDowell as an unholy fusion of Ted Turner, Richard Branson, and Alex the Droog from "A Clockwork Orange.")

Carter fires some of the ad staff but keeps Dan on as his "wing man," and there's good, solid human humor in watching the older man choke on his bile and the younger man glom needily onto this father figure. Carter, it turns out, is a mess. His wife of a few months (Selma Blair, briefly seen) is a chic drip, and he can't even reward himself with a Porsche without the gods getting the last laugh. And he's bothered by the fact that he's empty inside. Grace is lean and deceptively witty -- he's very much like Tobey Maguire's cooler brother -- and he has cynical gray eyes that here flicker with fear. Carter is so desperate for a "home-type home" that he follows Dan back to the suburbs like a stray and so hungry for connection that he's not above falling for Dan's daughter, Alex.

You can't blame him, since she is played by Johansson. Despite the makeup problems mentioned above -- what was the lip gloss budget on this movie? -- the scenes with Johansson are the weirdest and most rewarding in "In Good Company." Alex isn't an eccentric movie sprite like, say, Natalie Portman's character in "Garden State." Instead, she's a believable college kid trying on roles and seeing what fits, and Johansson makes her both tough-minded and as yet unformed. A scene in which Alex brings Carter back to her NYU dorm room is perfect in its details of how a smart, gauche young woman might try to seduce a man, down to the bossa nova on the CD player and the silk hankie over the lamp.

Back in the corporate world, Quaid goes into deep scowl as Dan senses something's up, and the actor's face continues to ossify throughout the movie. This is a waste of one of our most high-spirited movie stars, I say, and the character's reaction to a surprise birthday party indicates Quaid might agree. "In Good Company" has been written as a love letter to the "dinosaurs," the office workers in their late 40s and older who have the wisdom of years yet are the first to be fired in the cutthroat world of multinational mergers. But other than David Paymer as a henpecked co-worker the movie barely gives them time to register, and back in the suburbs Helgenberger has little to do but act wise and nauseous.

At certain points in "In Good Company," I was reminded of "The Apartment," Billy Wilder's bittersweet 1960 comedy classic about modern corporate man and his discontents. Grace has something of the young Jack Lemmon when viewed from the proper angle, and there's a similar jaundiced awareness of collapsible spines in the executive suite. But the movie ultimately sees Dan's last stand as a blow struck for old-fashioned ad sales -- for traditional marketing. Say what you will, but I don't think that's what Wilder ever had in mind.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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