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Work remains a four-letter word in Hollywood movies, and simply for that reason, Paul Weitz’s In Good Company—with its passing but palpable concern for pink slips and mortgage payments—seems almost fresh. The movie sets up a loaded scenario—ageism and oedipal conflict in the globalized corporate battlefield—before fizzling out with a tepid assurance that things will somehow be OK for the good guys (or at least the underdog middle managers), the whims of multinational capital be damned. It’s helpful at this point to keep in mind that the film is a product of the second-largest media conglomerate in the world.
When popular weekly Sports America is swallowed up by megacorp Globecom, chief of ad sales Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) loses his corner office to a hotshot half his age. Oblivious and excitable, Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) shows up chugging venti Starbucks and spouting “synergy” mantras. As a snapshot of marketing culture, In Good Company might have been convincing two or three generations ago: While Dan and his cronies believe in folksy, laid-back sales pitches that Dale Carnegie might have scripted, Carter’s aggressive cross-promotions are improbably viewed as newfangled schemes. Aging jock Dan at first views his scrawny know-nothing new boss with undisguised contempt. But Carter’s empty bravado can barely conceal his loneliness and social ineptitude—he throws himself at Dan, even invading his home life, and to compound the older man’s consternation, Dan’s daughter (Scarlett Johansson), an NYU sophomore, takes a liking to the adorably hapless Carter.
In somewhat bad faith, In Good Company abandons its satire of corporate culture to focus on male bonding. Both men fill complementary voids: Dan doesn’t have a son, and Carter didn’t have a dad. The scenario is stale but the actors are faultless. Quaid, underrated throughout his career, is emerging as an avatar of midlife masculine discontent, drawing on his own fading virility and summoning an empathy far beyond the abilities of Harrison Ford and Kevin Costner. Only Grace, who enlivens every movie he’s in (and sometimes saves them), could make a biz school asshole’s existential crisis credible; his Carter is not only believable but sympathetic, an ambitious twentysomething at once thrilled and panicked by his accidental success. Still, the issue of workplace anxiety in the age of buyouts and takeovers is unduly sugarcoated. The film’s naïveté slips into disingenuousness with a ridiculous climactic scene involving Globecom’s Murdochian CEO (an unfortunate cameo by Malcolm McDowell). By the time Dan bravely pipes up, taking an earnest stand for old-fashioned work values in the face of bottom-line dehumanization, the boomer paranoia implicit in the premise has given way fully to boomer fantasy.