In Good Company: Paul Weitz’s Serio-Comedy Starring Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace

A romantic comedy about the modern corporate world, In Good Company is an incoherent film, full of ideological cracks. Eager to please, Paul Weitz’s serio-comedy wants to have it both ways: a critique of the harsh and ruthless business world, where industrious but old people lose their jobs to young and inexperienced ones, and a heartwarming Capraesque fable about old-time professionals, America’s last vestiges of moral characters and keepers of the old American way of doing business.

In Good Company is a movie that begins as a severe treatment of a generational strife, and ends up as a male bonding saga of an old pro (Dennis Quaid), who becomes a father figure and buddy of his young boss (Topher Grace), who happens to be dating his daughter (Scarlett Johansson).

Freudian critics will have a field day with the film, whose first half advocates the killing of the father-patriarch, only to negate it in the second half, and show not only the return and revenge of the father but the reassertion of his modus operandi as a desirable goal. I suspect that if the filmmakers (the Weisz brothers) were to remake The Graduate today, they would have found a way to reconcile between Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman), his parents, and the Robinsons too.

Despite its thematic inconsistencies, In the Company of Men is a generous and enjoyable film that, unlike most Hollywood corporate movies, doesn’t neglect the women either.

The amiable film invites the viewers to spend two hours in the good company of vet actor Quaid, emerging star and heartthrob Grace, and the talented Johansson, who’s quickly becoming the busiest and most accomplished actress of her generation.

At 51, Dan Foreman (Quaid) is living a good life is good. He’s the long-term head of an ads sales at the weekly Sports America, which has just celebrated the magazine’s biggest year, thanks in large part to Dan’s warm, honest, handshake deal style and the departmental esprit de corps he has fostered.

The film begins with shocking news that throws Dan off balance. First, he finds out accidentally about his wife’s unexpected pregnancy. Then, he learns of the acceptance of his daughter Alex (Johansson) into the prestigious NYU Creative Writing program. Dan’s a survivor who has managed and will always manage, but he’s concerned abuts the family finances. Tuition at NYU is expensive, which calls for a second mortgage on the house.

Carter Dureya (Grace) is exactly half of Dan’s age, 26. Carter thinks his life and his career are “awesome.” A whiz kid, Carter has devoted himself single-mindedly to getting ahead at the multi-national conglomerate Globecom. The management knows his name, and he is being groomed (a word repeated enough times to register strongly) for his next rung on the corporate ladder, heading up ad sales at the magazine Sports America, one of the cornerstone publications, newly acquired by Globecom in their latest takeover.

The first reel unfolds a series of blows, some personal, some professional to the two protagonists. Unfortunately for Carter, his promotion coincides with the crumbling of his young marriage (only seven months). H has no one, save a pet fish, to share his joy with. Nonetheless, ambitious and driven, Carter is also a survivor. He knows he’s on his way–that he’s going places.

Dan’s exasperation at his demotion is nothing compared to his shock and incredulity at being replaced by the young, inexperienced Carter. At first, Dan has little desire to be Carter’s wingman. But the new developments at home force him to keep his job. Out of necessity, Dan forges a tenuous relationship with Carter, and the two begin working together to meet Globecom’s mandate of cutting the department’s budget, while increasing its revenues by 35 percent.

Carter’s zeal to deliver to upper management doesn’t win him many fans at Sports America. His bottom-line approach, lacking in the human side, is at odds with the more compassionate Dan and his devotion to his staff. As Dan sees it, these people are his family, something Carter sorely lacks and also fails to understand.

Carter’s loneliness prompts him to call a Sunday staff meeting and then invite himself to Dan’s home for dinner with the Foremans. Over dinner, Carter and Alex have a chance to talk while Alex whoops her dad’s boss at foosball. An affair between the two lonely spirits follows, which they decide to hide from Dan.

In Good Company then turns from a corporate picture to a romantic comedy, in which it’s only a matter of time before the father finds out and explodes, in public, of course. This is one of the film’s interesting points, for the corporate handbook has little to say about sleeping with your employee’s collegiate daughter. There’s also the danger that if word got out, news of the affair might threaten Carter’s detente with Dan, Alex’s intimate relationship with her father, and the progress the two salesmen have made at Sports America.

Rushing to resolve all the tensions in a crowd-pleasing manner, the last reel is formulaic, and viewers familiar with the conventions of romantic comedy will be able to guess how the film ends.

It’s tempting to contrast Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s psychological melodrama set in the business world, with In Good Company, as statements of their respective times and politics.

In the 1987 film, Michael Douglas played Gordon Gekko, a Wall Street super-trader who becomes a mentor to Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a young broker who’s going nowhere and is willing to sacrifice all of his moral principles for the success and wealth at the top. Unlike Denis Quaid and his comrades, who are ethical and enjoy their interaction with their clients, Gekko is heartless. For him, what counts the most are not the perks, but the thrill of the deal and the scent of the kill. You may recall Gekko’s spellbinding sermon on the virtues of greed, which was modeled on the words of real-life Ivan Boesky, and was responsible for Michael Douglas’ winning the Best Actor Oscar.

Artistic merits aside, Wall Street was meant as an indictment of the greed of the 1980s, when Reagonomics ran supreme and America’s new “heroes” were people like Boesky, Donald Trump, and Michael Milken (who ended up in jail). Two decades later, In Good Company is a nicer, kinder film, one that preaches for reconciliation between fathers and sons, and a business style that merges the good old ways with the not-so-good but necessary new ways of doing business.

Time will tell how accurately the film reflects the zeitgeist, though the film makes one glaring mistake. It’s 2004 and there’s no black character or any man or woman of color in a major role. All the leads are white bread Americans. How realistic is that

The Weitz brothers (Chris is credited as co-producer) are nice filmmakers who like to humanize their ruthless and self-absorbed men. In Good Company follows in the footsteps of About a Boy, in which a young boy warmed himself into the life of the selfish Hugh Grant and in the process changes his lifestyle completely.

Paul Weitz has always been good with actors. Along with the three central superlative performances, it’s a pleasure to watch character actors such as David Paymer, as an old-timer Jewish ad salesman (whose wife is more successful than he is–for a while), Philip Baker hall, as a sporting goods business owner, and Marg Helgenberger, as Dan’s wife.

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