Dan Foreman, the central character of In Good Company, is the head of advertising sales at a national sports magazine. He has been with the company for a long time. He’s good at his job – knowledgeable, personable, and competent. The sales team he has assembled and manages is very reliable. Each member of the team was hand-picked by Dan; they respect his integrity and fair management style. At home, Dan has a wife, Ann (Marg Helgenberger), and two daughters: Jana (Zena Grey) and Alex (Scarlett Johansson). The family lives in a nice house in the suburbs that is the result of Dan’s hard work over the years.
Although things seem idyllic, they are about to change for Dan. First, Ann announces her late-in-life pregnancy. Then Alex decides she wants to transfer from SUNY to NYU, which means Dan will have to take out another mortgage on the home to pay for it. These things are fine and can be adjusted to, but they are compounded by a problem at work. Dan’s company is bought by a multibillion-dollar corporation that has been gobbling up everything in sight. As a result, Dan is demoted and suddenly finds himself with a new boss. Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) is 26, roughly half Dan’s age. He has no experience working in ad sales. He has been installed in the position after successfully pitching a radical idea: cell phones for the toddler set. Consequently, he is being “groomed” for bigger and better things within the infrastructure.
Dan instantly resents Carter, but the younger man never fires the older one, even though he could (and is encouraged to by higher-ups). Carter seems to be aware that he’s out of his element. He keeps Dan around as his “wingman” but a more accurate term might be “life preserver.” As long as someone there knows what they’re doing, Carter can take credit. The relationship between the two men goes to a different level when Carter’s wife (Selma Blair) leaves him abruptly after seven months. Distraught, he latches onto Dan and invites himself over for dinner, where he meets Alex, whom he soon falls in love with.
In Good Company is, at its most fundamental level, a “grass is always greener” story. Dan looks at his young boss and sees days gone by. He misses running things, making decisions, being the go-to guy. He wants to be the one in charge again. Watching Carter flounder (or fail) just reinforces the perception of his own superiority. Carter, meanwhile, has devoted his young career to getting ahead at any cost. He is ambitious, but not in any particular direction. He likes being successful without necessarily liking his job. Carter eventually looks at Dan and sees what he really wants: a stable, loving family. As the story goes on, he realizes that all the money and power mean nothing, especially if you’re alone in the world. He starts off wanting to be the big shot, but eventually he thinks it might not be such a bad thing to be Dan Foreman.
These characters are interesting in ways that you rarely see in mainstream movies. They have three dimensions, including flaws. Alex is a fascinating character as well. She loves and admires her father, yet the liaison with Carter is, in some ways, the ultimate act of rebellion. Her struggle to define herself (just as Dan and Carter struggle to define themselves) leads her to do the one thing Dan would never want her to do. There is a scene in which father confronts daughter in a restaurant that is heartbreaking in its dynamics.
There are lots of other compelling avenues the picture goes down, including its examination of the way our modern business world is youth-obsessed. Youth is considered superior to experience. A guy like Dan is labeled “a dinosaur” despite years of experience and success. Carter, meanwhile, has no experience whatsoever, but he’s young and energetic, which inexplicably makes him more attractive to a company that is only concerned with the bottom line. It is a thoroughly modern paradox: at a time when companies strive to make more and more money for their shareholders, the workers who actually know what they’re doing are pushed out in favor of newbies. We all know this happens, but seeing it portrayed so astutely in the film makes the reality hit home a little more. (Ironically, film directors often complain of the same bias. Older directors often find it hard to get jobs, despite the fact that many of them have made certified classics. Hollywood is constantly in pursuit of the newest director with the freshest visual style.)
What I hope I am conveying is the sense that In Good Company is not your typical lightweight fare. It is a film that quietly, humorously observes the business world and those who inhibit it. Without ever becoming condescending or preachy, it sends a very clear message about the importance of having one’s priorities straight. Yes, it’s nice to be successful at work, but success at home (and, just as importantly, within yourself) is even better. Writer/director Paul Weitz – who made American Pie and About a Boy with his brother Chris – has created a movie that feels very real. So real, in fact, that you can’t help wondering if it was inspired by something personal. The story is believable and identifiable; the characters seem like genuine people, not pawns in a screenplay. I find that I can really sink my teeth into a movie like this – one that is very much based in simple humanity.
Each and every performance is right on the money. There’s a very important chemistry between Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace. The two must do a delicate dance around one another; their characters view each other as threats, but they also secretly want to be like each other. The actors bring that idea out perfectly. They make a great on-screen duo. Scarlett Johansson has a challenge as well; we have to understand why Alex would date Carter knowing that it would crush her father. To her credit, the actress makes Alex’s motivations very clear. She’s not a ditz (as some actresses would have played her) or a slut (as others might have). Instead, she is a young woman trying to solidify her own self-image. She is looking for something that she needs, testing the waters of life before deciding which direction to jump. Dan and Carter, on the other hand, are already in the water and are trying to decide which direction to swim.
Like Dan Foreman, In Good Company is not the freshest or slickest thing around. There are no cheap jokes at easy targets. There are no gratuitous sex scenes or bits of needless melodrama. The camera does not swirl around in elaborate moves, and the editing never calls attention to itself. The film is old-fashioned, but it is sturdy and dependable. There’s no need for all that flash; In Good Company has confidence in its ability to do the job and do it right.
( 1/2 out of four)
In Good Company is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.
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