It's one of those nightmare scenarios of which feel-good stories are made: Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid), middle-aged family man and top sales guy at a big, Sports Illustrated-like magazine, gets thrown for a loop when his company is bought and he gets demoted to make room for Carter Duryea (Topher Grace), some whiz kid half his age. Oh, and his daughter wants to transfer from SUNY to the much more expensive NYU. Oh, and that night when he gets home, his wife tells him she's pregnant. At first it seems that In Good Company is not going to go for the feel-good resolution in which lessons are learned, lives are improved, and everybody fades into a happy sunset... but then it does, and it's hard not to feel cheated.
Whatever else may be said, this film is the work of consummate professionals, and that doesn't mean it's soulless but competent hackwork. Writer/director Paul Weitz showed with his wonderful, glowing adaptation of Nick Hornby's About a Boy that he could tell heartwarming stories that didn't insult the mind and could inject just enough acidity into a romance to keep a movie from flopping into a messy, Love, Actually-style mess. The directing and writing here are superbly crisp, and one really couldn't ask for better performances, both from the stars and supporting cast.
As the two men butting heads at the film's center, Quaid and Grace are effortless in their roles, with Quaid somehow making Dan, that most overdone stereotype - the embattled father and wage-earner who longs for his daughter to stay a little girl forever - a uniquely affecting creation, while Grace locates the lonely, desperate-for-attention soul in Carter's impatient, 26-year-old corporate ladder climber and makes you practically yearn for his happiness. A nice twist in the story backdrops Carter's ascension at the office over Dan with a role reversal at home: Dan has a loving family, friends, and a new baby on the way, while Carter's wife of seven months (Selma Blair, in a too-short and wickedly hilarious cameo) has just divorced him, so he's taken to inviting himself over to Dan's house simply to feel some human warmth. (One could have made a whole farce simply out of showing this man dealing with the humiliation of working for this baby-faced tyro, who insists on saying "psyched" and "awesome.") Completing this triangle of fine performers is the always valuable Scarlett Johansson, playing Dan's daughter Alex, who completes her father's symbolic emasculation by starting an affair with Carter. Sure, most of what we see in their relationship involves walking along picturesque Greenwich Village streets while mellow pop tunes play, but it's a welcome respite from the mildly dull corporate skullduggery going on back at the office.
As adept as he is with his actors, though, Weitz's script isn't always up to the task, especially as it draws to a close. The first two-thirds of the film tick along quite superbly, with Dan quietly suffering Carter's callowness at the office but still developing a fatherly affection for the kid, still unaware of his affair with Alex. But when the relationship is finally exposed and after Alex, Dan, and Carter are forced into an emotionally bruising confrontation, the film doesn't seem to know where to go. First, it's back to the office for some corporate synergy shenanigans involving the corporate boss who bought the magazine in the first place (Malcolm McDowell, playing a sort of gleefully satanic cross between Richard Branson and Barry Diller) and a clunky rant that appears to be against globalization - or something. Then Dan and Carter have to team up for One Big Sell, which might have made for a dramatic, albeit predictable closer, if Weitz didn't treat it so perfunctorily, as though he were saying, "I know this is what the audience wants here, so I'll give it to them, but that doesn't mean I have to like it."
There's a fantastic movie buried somewhere in here, and maybe Cameron Crowe or James L. Brooks could have pulled it out, given the thing a dash of pop poetry, and sent everyone home happy. As it is, In Good Company is pleasant enough company for a couple of hours, but it's difficult not to feel that all the hard work on display here by Quaid, Grace, Johansson, and others is more than a little wasted.
Commentary track and deleted scenes are the highlight of the film's DVD.
I've got good news and bad news...