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January 18, 2005

In Good Company: Not so good at multi-tasking

Trying to do too many things at once can be difficult on a person. It can also be hard on a film that tries so hard to please everyone yet fails on most levels because of it.

In Good Company, the newest film from Paul Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie) struggles with its identity. Is it a buddy movie? A coming-of-age story? Corporate drama? Romantic comedy? At different times it seems to be all of these, and in the process, none of the story lines or characters are fully developed or explored.

The plot of the film is pretty simple. Dennis Quaid plays middle-aged ad exec Dan Forman, who find his job passed on to the 26-year-old Carter Duryea (Topher Grace, looking not a day over 20). Not only must Dan deal with his new hotshot boss and the loss of authority and self-respect, but his wife, Ann (Marg Helgenberger), is pregnant, he has to take a second mortgage out on his house to pay for daughter Alex's (Scarlett Johansson) college education, and he discovers that his boss is actually sleeping with his daughter. How's that for some awkward talks around the water cooler?

Quaid grasps the complexity of his character's dilemma in the film and plays it out splendidly. We watch him realize that he no longer understands business, as the mogul of his company drops by the office to talk about synergy and cross marketing. As everyone nods in agreement, Dan Forman asks the questions that clearly designate him as over-the-hill. The camera zooms in for a close-up on his face—where everyone else is cool, calm, and collected with the dewy skin of 20-somethings, Dan's skin is ruddy and full of pores. The writing's on the wall, or, rather, Quaid's expressive face; the old guys are out and the young 'uns are in.

This would all be fine, except for the competing plotlines that get in the way of a full exploration of Dan's experience in this new corporate hell. It seems that business as usual isn't interesting by itself, so a second plotline involving Carter and Alex becomes interlaced with the first.

Johansson has a monopoly on understatement in roles. She is the anti-Natalie Portman; Portman's every thought and idea is manifest on her face. Johansson's long dazes and slight smiles worked well in Lost in Translation, but in a portrayal of a college student, they fail. No college student would be so devoid of emotion, especially since her two main interlocutors are her father (with whom she is supposed to have a loving, trustful relationship) and Carter (with whom she may be falling in love). Alex seems so completely absent of emotion or passion that it's hard to understand why Carter falls in love with her (which he does after what appears to be three dates).

A third plotline, which only shows up partway through, details Carter's search for a father figure, which he attempts to find in Dan. When Carter tells Dan that his father left the family when he was only a child, we want to feel sorry for him. We can also see that Dan wants to feel sorry for him. But then again, we are reminded that Carter is a 26-year-old who says "psyched" way too much and bumped Dan out of his job right when he had to take a second mortgage out on his home—and I am easily reminded that I feel much worse for Dan than for Carter.

Carter Duryea is supposed to be a complex character. The hints are there in the script: He's corporate swine (even though his mom was a hippie), and he starts dating his boss's daughter shortly after his wife (played winningly by Selma Blair) leaves. We see him trying to find some meaning in his life—especially with Alex—but it's really hard to care, especially because Quaid's character is so much more sympathetic. Grace's performance is competent, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Beyond the acting, however, there are a few bright spots in the film. The soundtrack works well in a Garden State type of way. Damien Rice's "Cannonball" is especially well placed. The mellow, often acoustic songs add to the languid pace—an achievement in its own right, as In Good Company takes place in Manhattan, a locale not generally known for providing a mellow backdrop.

The film also wrapped up well. The ending was almost happy, but far enough away from a Hollywood ending that it strikes a positive note for viewers.

So while In Good Company isn't great, that doesn't mean it has nothing to offer. The multi-layered plot doesn't work particularly well, but Quaid's performance is enough that the film is not completely devoid of value. After all, in good company, anything can be enjoyable.