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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 14, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Uncle Orson Extra: In Good Company

In Good Company looks like the kind of high-concept comedy that studio executives feel good about greenlighting. Which has nothing to do with whether the movie is actually good.

The premise is simple but promising: Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) is a fifty-year-old salesman for a sports magazine. His company is bought by a conglomerate, and Dan finds himself demoted, with 26-year-old Carter (Topher Grace), who knows nothing about selling ad space in a magazine, put in as his boss.

Carter, who was recently divorced, then proceeds to have an affair with Dan's daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson), while layoffs decimate Dan's sales team.

This movie succeeds on many levels.

First, it's a laugh-out-loud comedy for grownups. No gross-out jokes (well, maybe one mild one about a pregnant woman throwing up), and the more you know about raising a family, sustaining a marriage, or working in a business, the funnier this movie is.

In other words, you are rewarded for being smart and experienced when you watch In Good Company, and how many movies is that true of?

Second, this is an excellent movie about fatherhood. Of course you assume it will be, given the premise, but here's the secret weapon in the script (by director Paul Weitz): This film is only slightly about Dan as the father of his daughters, and very much about Dan becoming the father that Carter is longing for.

In fact, the emptiness at the core of Carter's character -- his pathetic eagerness to please, his sense of worthlessness only thinly disguised by enthusiasm -- is the aching hunger at the heart of most people who grew up with no father or a very bad father.

You can win praise from many other people and it has little power to heal a damaged heart, especially if you think you only got it by fooling them. Earn the praise of a respected father, however, who knows you for who you really are, and the hunger is satisfied.

It's a truth that is little talked about and rarely touched on by Hollywood, partly because our post-feminist culture has so degraded the role of fathers, and partly because people who understand fatherhood are extremely rare in the upper reaches of Hollywood studios. You don't often get to those positions by living like a person who has, or is, a good father.

Weitz's previous film, About a Boy, was also an exploration of fatherhood, intertwined with a truthful and funny comedy.

And the choice of Dennis Quaid to play Dan Foreman was exactly right. In his younger days, Quaid was never quite able to capture America's heart as a bold leading man, though he did wonderful work in movies like Breaking Away, The Right Stuff, The Big Easy, D.O.A., Great Balls of Fire, and Everybody's All-American.

Beginning with Something to Talk About (1995), however, Quaid stopped playing the young guy and began to explore older characters who learned something. Parent Trap looked like it might be the beginning of his downhill slide into slight comedy, but in fact it was the beginning of his upward rise into being the iconic Dad that emerged in Frequency and The Rookie.

Quaid seems doomed, however, to be marginal in the eyes of the Hollywood establishment. That's all right: As long as they keep hiring him to play roles like Dan Foreman in In Good Company, Quaid has the American audience, because he's an actor who is absolutely believable in every role he plays.

And when he's given a great part, as in In Good Company, there's nobody better.

Topher Grace is also an excellent actor, bringing depth to a role that could have been merely comic. When you watch In Good Company, imagine Jim Carrey in the part and you'll realize just how important it was to this movie to have a superb actor making every moment real.

In addition, the business plot -- corporate takeovers and the chaos that meaningless layoffs and stupid new management strategies cause in the lives of innocent hardworking people -- is written with a great deal of accuracy, though there's more than a little wish fulfilment in a speech Dan gives to the big tycoon. In the real world, he would have been ushered out of the room after his first sentence.

But every now and then, we want to have a movie that shows the little guy speaking truth to power, and we'll forgive a little hokum in the setup.

I recommend this movie highly -- but with one very serious reservation.

And there's no way to talk about that reservation without giving away significant information about the story. So stop reading this right now, go see In Good Company, and then come back and see if you share my disappointment with one aspect of the film.

*

I mean it, don't read this part if you haven't seen the movie.

All right, you were warned.

There is a serious mistake in the script, and it's one that could easily have been fixed. But Weitz was apparently so focused on the father-son story and the business story that he never bothered to make Alex a real character.

It comes down to the crucial scene where she and Carter become lovers. They meet by chance at a sidewalk café in New York (Carter didn't know she was at NYU), and after a day of earnest conversation, which we mostly don't see, Alex invites Carter to her dorm room, telling him her roommate is out for the night.

Carter is full of misgivings, and that's where Weitz's focus is, as writer and director. But we are given no conceivable reason for Alex's behavior.

She knows, after all, that this guy is her father's boss. She knows that people are being laid off left and right at her father's company. Unless she's a complete idiot, she knows that any romantic relationship with Carter will cause serious complications for her family.

And yet she doesn't just fall in love with him, she throws herself at him and practically drags him onto the bed.

It makes us like Carter a little less that he succumbs. But it makes Alex incomprehensible.

We had been given no sign up to then that Alex was a low-self-esteem nymphomaniac, or that she was in the habit of sleeping around. In fact, the movie has her tell Carter that she has never invited a guy up to her dorm room.

But from her behavior in that scene, apparently she is sexually experienced, which implies that she has not been honest with her parents, who have no idea that she would so casually enter into a sexual liaison with a man eight years older than her, after such brief acquaintance.

Everybody in the group that watched the film with me had the same response: We kept waiting for the revelation that she had only slept with Carter to try to keep her dad's job safe. It's the only explanation that makes sense, since the movie clearly doesn't want us to see her as a slut.

Some in our group speculated that maybe Hollywood is so used to women who sleep with any man who radiates power that it doesn't cross their mind that most of America sees anything wrong with a woman who would behave that way.

I suspect, however, that Weitz simply committed a very common mistake among young writers: He treated a key character as a plot contrivance instead of a person. He made Alex do what the plot needed her to do, forgetting that good writers treat every character as the hero of his or her own story.

If someone else had been directing Weitz's script, there probably would have been a script conference where the director said, "Alex comes off wrong here, go back and let us see why she's doing this."

But because Weitz was the director himself, and because Hollywood culture treats "auteur" directors as demigods and nobody ever questions their decisions except for financial reasons, Weitz never saw the hole in his story.

It would have been so easy to fix.

In that scene in the dorm room, all we needed was for Carter to stop her and say, "Alex, you don't have to do this. I'm not going to fire your father. He's the only guy in my office who knows what he's doing."

This would be completely in character for Carter -- after all, he's filled with self-doubt, he's coming off a damaging divorce. Of course he would suspect she had a motive other than his irresistible charm.

And of course she would be offended that he would accuse her of such a motive, whether it was true or not.

The scene would have ended with her liking Carter all the more for not wanting to sleep with her if her motive was just to help her father. They could even have slept together without damaging the credibility of either character, and without our thinking of her as sexually easy.

The important thing is, the issue of her motivation would have been raised and dealt with.

Does any of this even matter?

Of course it does. Because it is precisely this flaw in the writing that keeps In Good Company, a very good movie, from being great. In the great version of this film, Alex would have been just as important -- and just as real -- as the two men; in the great version of this movie, we would have seen Dan's fatherliness toward Alex, too, instead of treating that relationship as the cultural cliche of the ignorant father who doesn't know his daughter is sleeping around and can't deal with it.

I'm glad that In Good Company is such a good movie -- one of the dozen best movies of 2004.

I'm only disappointed that it isn't in contention for being one of the all-time great comedies. Because it isn't. And this is the complete reason why.


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