The sweetness of In Good Company.

Reviews of the latest films.
Jan. 13 2005 6:10 PM

The Tender Ways of Corporate Sharks

In Good Company sweetens smarmy capitalists.

A hard-shell candy movie with a soft center
A hard-shell candy movie with a soft center

Death of a Salesman, Glengarry Glenn Ross: Salesmen carry a lot of freight in plays and movies about our economic unease, and why shouldn't they? They're at the axis of our capitalist way of life: They're the middlemen between fickle corporate goliaths and fickle consumers. They're also the first to fall, and fall ignominiously: No leader boasts about casualties in war, but deep-six a few hundred sales managers—with their "bloated salaries"—and the market huzzahs. Paul Weitz's In Good Company (Universal) is a liberal-humanist sitcom set in a brutal global-capitalist universe. The movie doesn't cut too deep, and it's impossibly sweetened, so that most of the characters get their just desserts. But it manages to be funny and charming while capturing a lot of disturbing things about the way we live now: our deepest fears about our place in a system that could force us to clean out our desks (if we even have desks) at the drop of a stock point.

Dennis Quaid plays Dan Forman, the old-fashioned 51-year-old head of ad sales at a sports magazine clearly modeled on Sports Illustrated. How old-fashioned is Dan? In the first scene, he simply hands a copy of his magazine to a former advertiser (Philip Baker Hall) and walks away, shocking the CEO by announcing that its quality will speak for itself. Now, I don't know that Dan could make it these days at a place like Time-Warner: In Good Company has a whiff of the early '80s, when the old guard watched in horror as the first wave of M.B.A. barbarians stormed the gate. But the terror is certainly timeless: of slick young men who bring a sort of macho triumphalism to laying people off—who admiringly refer to one another as "chain saw maniacs" and "Ninja assassins."

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The assassins of In Good Company are sent in by a multinational mogul called Teddy K. (the reliably satanic Malcolm McDowell), whose agents demote Dan and appoint Carter Duryea (Topher Grace)—a 26-year-old with no sales experience but one marketing coup: dinosaur-shaped cell phones for 5-year-olds. Carter has a mandate to cut jobs and raise revenue, as he explains to the older man while force-feeding him sushi. (That's another '80s throwback: Dan seems never to have seen the stuff.) The chummy upstart tells Dan he'll be "an awesome wing-man" and reminds him, when challenged, that he's lucky to have kept his job. (Dan's late-fortysomething wife, played by Marg Helgenberger, is improbably expecting a child, and they've just taken out a second mortgage to pay for their older daughter's college tuition.)

Carter isn't vacuous, but he's still a smarmy capitalist tool. He hasn't thought through the meaning of Teddy K.'s corporate mantra, "synergy," which is the movie's bogeyman word. Synergy is used here like "melanoma": It's anti-human, it spreads, and it squeezes out the good guys in an unholy monopoly. In its face, Quaid's Dan is the stubborn voice of humanism, while Grace's Carter stands for all that is amoral and rapacious—

Well, hold on, Carter isn't much of a rapacious antagonist, actually. Grace cut his teeth on That '70s Show, and he's a puppy-eyed actor with an appealing self-consciousness. He dithers adorably; he could be Robert Downey Jr.'s kid brother—Downey without the danger, with a soft center. In Good Company is supposed to be about Carter's conversion from corporate machine to man, but there's no real drama or suspense because the script has him lovably confessing his insecurities right from the get-go.

The twist is that Carter confesses those fears to Dan's college-sophomore daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson), who subsequently invites him up to her dorm room. So Dan is losing both his place in the world and his darling little girl to this punk, and Quaid plays the patriarchal anxiety (and rage) with just enough style to keep it funny and just enough realism to keep it affecting. He has a great exchange with Alex: He tells her he liked her better when she was 5, and she says, "That's an awful thing to say." And he just stands at glowers at her, unable to speak. He knows what he said is awful. But she gave herself to his boss, his usurper.

Carter isn't much of a usurper, though. He doesn't sneer at Dan and say, "Nyah, nyah, I've screwed your daughter." He's abashed, sheepish, and genuinely smitten with the young woman. That's the sweetened part of In Good Company, that both men are the movie's protagonists: nice guys wanting the same good things for themselves and all mankind, forced by the system into brutal competition. So the movie has a soft center, too.

Weitz, who also wrote the screenplay, makes mistakes in the pacing and lets the film run down, but they're the mistakes of a director who likes his characters and his actors too much. (James L. Brooks was similarly indulgent in his much-maligned Spanglish.) In how neatly it plays out, In Good Company is very much a corporate middlebrow Hollywood product. But there's an honorable place for a writer-director who can work within the system and criticize it, too, who can remind you of arbitrary economic injustice in the context of a romantic fairy tale. That strikes me as some honest synergy.

Speaking of Ninja assassins: Make way for Elektra (20th Century Fox), the new wannabe Marvel superhero franchise starring Jennifer Garner as a wraithlike, red-swathed, three-pronged-dagger-wielding avenger. In last week's New York Times, Virginia Heffernan neatly filleted TV's Alias and its star, Garner, arguing that its action-hero template has gotten old fast and that you'd have to be riveted by the actress' face and its two expressions—dimply and solemn—to stay hooked. Virginia might want to avoid Elektra, in which Garner keeps her dimples under wraps. But I'm bound to say that I see the allure. That face is really strange—long and fish-lipped, with different planes going at different angles. She's like a Picasso guppy. I dig her slinky dancer's torso, too; it keeps her supple in her stiffness.

Elektra isn't half-bad—only maybe two-fifths. It isn't the fault of the able director, Rob Bowman, or the script or the actors. … It's just that these Marvel pictures are starting to blur together. Superhero with a buried trauma … God's loneliest man/woman … murdered parents … martial-arts … fast-food Zen homilies … gloating super-villain. Elektra was killed off in the tragic finale of last year's Daredevil, but the blind martial-arts master Stick (Terence Stamp) resurrected her—and then rejected her for being too violent. Or is this some kind of test to see if her heart is pure? So far she's flunking. As an amoral assassin, she slays scores of people, her entrances heavily fetishized: a glimpse of red, a whoosh of silk, a tantalizing piece of bodice, strands of hair blowing in a cosmic wind. Solemn, indeed. But something tells you those dimples are under there somewhere.

There is one good exchange, which is in the trailer: "Elektra—like the tragedy! Your parents must have had a sense of humor." "Not really." And there is one good special effect: The villain called "Tattoo" unleashes birds of prey, wolves, and snakes from his painted body. (Computers were made for effects like that.) But Elektra is otherwise ho-hum. It hits its marks, but it has none of the surreal delirium of the Hong Kong pictures that obviously inspired it—A Chinese Ghost Story, The Bride With White Hair, The Heroic Trio. It needs some personality, some flakiness, some genuine weirdness. Elektra is supposed to have obsessive-compulsive disorder, to the point where she even counts her steps. But in the context of the movie, that doesn't look bizarre: It seems deeply in tune with whole mechanical, paint-by-numbers construction. There isn't a whisper of spontaneity.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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