Company Man Movie Review

As a film critic, there are few things more frustrating than watching a good movie self-destruct. It's painfully disappointing to be part way through a screening and excited about recommending the picture, when it suddenly takes a turn for the worse, spoiling everything you liked about it to begin with.

The best (or rather worst) example of this phenomenon is Brian DePalma's "Snake Eyes," which was a seat-gripping espionage-angled thriller -- until the mystery was solved an hour before the credits rolled and the rest of the movie flopped around like a dying fish.

"Company Man" is an espionage-angled comedy about a hapless sissy of a 1960s grammar teacher named Allen Quimp (Douglas McGrath) who tells his social-climbing wife (Signorney Weaver) that he's really a CIA agent posing as a schoolteacher to get her off his back about finding a more prestigious job "with commuting and ulcers and briefcases!"

After Quimp stumbles into helping a Russian ballet star (Ryan Phillippe in a cameo role) claim political asylum, the CIA comes calling in earnest (they want to take credit for the defection), and soon Quimp is in Cuba, slapsticking his way though the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

The first 40 minutes are a laugh riot. The story is told in flashback as Quimp is called on the carpet by a secret Senate committee to explain how the CIA's operations in Cuba became such a joke. For comedy source material McGrath -- who wrote and directed the film with pal Peter Askin -- taps every believe-it-or-not legend that has surfaced over the years about Cold War black ops against Castro (poisoned cigars, LSD, hair remover, etc.).

In a casting coup, he also tapped an ad-lib-crazy Woody Allen as the head of the CIA's operations on the island -- a character so clueless he lights a cigar on a burning effigy of the dictator Batista while declaring that there couldn't possibly be revolution brewing in Cuba. Half my notes from the screening are Allen's sidesplitting dialogues.

The other half of my notes are frustrated variations on the phrase "Goes from witty to imbecilic almost instantaneously."

It's about the time John Turturro shows up, devouring scenery as an agent gone rogue, that "Company Man" begins limping. Weaver shows up in Havana, wanting to write a book about her adventures as a spy's wife. Quimp and his cohorts impersonate a Beach Boys-style rock'n'roll band to infiltrate a birthday party for Castro's daughter. And that's just the beginning of the trite, laughless downward spiral the picture takes as its antics accelerate.

Almost every gag falls flat, and all the characters that had been so much fun early on become largely grating. (In addition to McGrath's delightfully dorky Quimp, Weaver's fussy wife and Allen's inept head spook, Alan Cumming plays a fey and flamboyant Batista and Denis Leary is a double-agent driven to confession by Quimp's incessant correcting of his grammar.)

As "Company Man" disintegrates, it gets harder to forgive some other mistakes, like the fact that boom microphones dip into the frame no less than 10 times in the course of the film.

This is not a picture to waste money on in the theater, but when it plays on cable in a year or so, it's absolutely worth catching the first two acts. Just remember this: When Castro arrives on the scene, it's time to change the channel.


Company Man Rating

" Grim "

Rating: PG-13, Opened: Friday, March 9, 2001


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