In the annual winter of our discontent at the movies, what a delight it is to find this little gem. The film proves that Paul Weitz’s About a Boy (co-directed by brother Chris, who here shares only co-producer status) wasn’t just some freak of nature from the American Pie boys.
Without a great Nick Hornby novel to work from this time, Weitz wrote his own original screenplay. And while the results may not be as funny as About a Boy, they’re almost as satisfying — and I suspect that like About a Boy, In Good Company is a movie that will only improve with subsequent viewings.
The story line is nothing special and not even very original. Dennis Quaid stars as Dan Foreman, a 51-year-old head ad salesman for Sports America magazine who is demoted to “wing man” under hotshot 26-year-old Carter Duryea (Topher Grace, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!) when the publishing firm is taken over by the huge corporation Globecom.
To add to his worries, Dan has a late-in-the-day pregnant wife, Ann (Marg Helgenberger, TV’s C.S.I.), and a grown daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson), who is ready to strike out on her own at NYU and needs a financial assist from Dad.
If that plot sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because you’ve seen aspects of it lots of times. What you haven’t seen is this material handled with this much warmth, savvy humor and unforced realism — or acted with this much innate honesty. Weitz’s film accomplishes the considerable feat of seeming like real life without being boring, and of being sweet without being gooey.
The devil, of course, is in the details, and it’s in the details that Weitz scores, both in his writing and his direction. He’s taken these familiar elements — and some others like Duryea’s failed marriage — and afforded them at least the illusion of freshness. His screenplay constantly moves in the direction of cliched formula, only to swerve in a different direction. Sometimes the swerves come at the last minute, giving the film a dramatic tension it would otherwise lack.
In one memorable instance, the movie sets the stage for pure soap opera — and then veers sharply away from the expected. At the same time, Weitz doesn’t wander so far from the expected that it becomes jarring. In fact, the movie is savvy enough to play occasionally to expectations, though it dares to take unusual paths to that realm and take its own sweet time getting there.
It’s difficult to describe the specifics without spoiling the freshness of the approach. The craftsmanship with which the film is structured is also admirable. Notice the way Weitz joins his scenes: There’s a tendency for the action of one character at the end of a scene to be picked up by another character at the beginning of the next. In a film like In Good Company, this goes well beyond the surface flourish that it might otherwise seem, since it visually connects the characters long before the story does.
Though it has appealing and striking backgrounds, the film is almost entirely about the characters, and this is brought home by the almost startling use of extreme close-ups on the actors.
When was the last time you saw a mainstream Hollywood film — at least one that wasn’t about a spooky house or fixing up a rundown domicile — with upper middle-class characters living in a house with scuffed and chipped paint? For that matter, when was the first time you saw that?
This is the kind of detail — along with the smart writing, the pitch-perfect performances and the beautifully integrated pop-music soundtrack — that makes In Good Company such a gem of a movie. Don’t let it pass unnoticed. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and drug references.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke