In Good Company (2004)

Anyone who’s been a part of a corporate takeover or merger will know exactly what’s happening here – the office politics, the economics, and the games people play from inside their cubicles. Anyone familiar with a sales job, and the pressures of tight budgets will immediately sympathize with main characters who seem to have more invested in their day jobs than their own lives and families. And finally, there;s that last little target audience group for this movie – people who found romance in all the wrong places, but kept at it anyway.

This pretty much describes the movie – three plots, three philosophies intertwined between a young ambitious sales guy (a boy, really) played by Topher Grace, his cautious subordinate, who’s twice his age – Dennis Quaid, and a love interest – Scarlett Johansson – who’s smart enough to know she’s creating a terrible situation by dating her father’s younger boss – but inpulsive enough to take the plunge anyway.

The movie starts by showing Quaid’s suburban family – they live way out of town, he wakes up every morning at 4:30, quietly drives to the big city, and starts his job. He’s a sales director for a sports magazine, and he’s 52 years old. Knows his trade, respected by colleagues, and is confident in his place. That is until the rumors of a possible takeover start floating around the office. And of course, anyone who can be replaced (by younger, cheaper workforce) start to get panicky.

The takeover descends suddenly (it always does), and heads begin to roll. Topher Grace is brought in to “streamline” the sales team, and deliver an immediate 20% improvement in sales (or a 20% reduction in staff). The kid is smart enough to know that he’s out of his league, too young and inexperienced to run a group of older salesmen, so he makes Quaid his “wingman”. The benefits of being a good wingman – “you get to keep your job”. And so this uneasy relationship starts, with way too many dependencies to be honest with each other, and yet too many years of experience to play along (on Quaid’s part).

The entire corporate game plot is delivered dead-on – the speeches, the musical chairs, even the big cheese himself – played by Malcolm McDowell is done with a straight face – which keeps its comic angles sharp, but also hints at a greater social problems when people are ALLOWED to be shuffled like that without good reason. The humor is dry in the office, but becomes very sweet in the house, when Topher Grace (eventually) comes over for a dinner, and basically acts like a boyfriend trying to impress the parents.

Any one of these three stories (even the doomed romance that’s out of place, and is heading towards a certain disaster) could have made great films – the actors know their characters, the story moves along without implausible jumps. What makes this movie special is that all three stories live together in one universe. They affect each other, and no matter how hard you try, you always bring some of your work troubles home, and your home’s issues will surface in a board meeting somewhere.

This great interplay allows for the movie to feel more realistic, characters more recognizable. In today’s world of a handful of corporations owning majority stakes of media outlets, too many jokes come with a sharp bite – but not because the filmmakers decided to poke fun at the ruthless heartless mega-corps. No, they simply created characters who are trying to live in that world, not rebelling against it, and not necessarily going with the flow. It’s a new culture out there, and both Quaid and Topher know it. Some – like a salesman played by David Paymer – are baffled by it. How are they going to deal with their new roles? Would they come out better people as a result? Will the corporations ever learn about trading off their talents for cheaper labor? OK, maybe that last one was rhetorical, but still, the movie presents a great, accurate study of people in their new, diminished roles.

That, and it reminds me of last summer’s takeover of the little publishing company I work at – very funny and incredibly sad at the same time. In Good Company could have been full of black humor, cynical observation and cold lessons. It has those elements, but they’re a background of today’s working America – real people doing their tasks, adapting, winning some and losing some. If anything, it’s upbeat and optimistic about its subject matter.

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