Company Man (2001)

by Tobias Peterson


A Dumb Joke of History

Coming on the heels of Thirteen Days, Company Man is the latest look at the troubled relationship between the United States and Cuba. Whereas trailers for Thirteen Days showcase the tense, behind-the-scenes U.S. politics during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Company Man is a comedy about the Bay of Pigs, set in Cuba. The idea is not as far-fetched as it might seem. The failure of this U.S.-backed invasion when Fidel Castro rose to power was so complete that it is itself a kind of historical comedy of errors, a ridiculously ill-conceived plot to oust the Communist leader with a makeshift flotilla of fishing boats. Nearly fifty years later, the outrage inspired by Castro is tempered for most Americans by the fall of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. Now the U.S. can afford to laugh at the misadventures of the Bay of Pigs. Unfortunately, Company Man offers precious little to laugh about.

The Company Man is actually Alan Quimp (Douglas McGrath), a 1950s Greenwich, Connecticut grammar and Drivers’ Ed instructor who obsesses over dangling participles while his wife, Daisy (Sigourney Weaver), harangues him about his pitiful salary and low-profile job. When Quimp’s father takes Daisy’s side, demanding that his son devote himself to a life of “six figure salaries,” “ulcers,” and “three-martini lunches,” Quimp invents a job for himself as an undercover agent with the CIA. Arguing that no one would suspect such a meek and ineffectual person of actually being a top-secret spy, Quimp convinces his father and Daisy that he is, in fact, a government agent.

cover art

Company Man

Director: Douglas McGrath and Peter Askin
Cast: Douglas McGrath, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Ryan Phillippe, Anthony LaPaglia, Alan Cumming, Denis Leary

(Paramount Classics)

This seems to solve Quimp’s problems, until the world-famous Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Petrov (Ryan Phillippe) makes an appearance at Quimp’s country club. In her excitement over her husband’s improved career prospects, Daisy tells Petrov (as she has told everyone) about Quimp’s position in the CIA. Petrov then convinces the unwitting Quimp to help him defect (“defecate,” as Petrov mangles it) to America. Quimp does so by whisking him away from Russian guards in one of his student driver’s cars, and in doing so, catches the attention of the real CIA, who decide to hire him as a bonafide agent to research the “rumors” of revolution circulating in Cuba.

Special Agent Quimp arrives in Cuba to find the local CIA blissfully ignorant of the coming Communist revolution. Quimp’s superior, Lowther (Woody Allen), lights his cigarettes on Batista effigies burnt in demonstration and spends all his time bemoaning Cuban cuisine and service. Quimp’s partner, Agent Fry (Denis Leary), turns out to be a double agent, confessing to his crime in order to put a stop to Quimp’s continual correction of his bad grammar. Soon after, to the CIA’s surprise and no one else’s, Castro (Anthony LaPaglia) comes to power and deposes the U.S.-supported General Batista (Alan Cumming). It is left to Quimp to assassinate Castro and restore Batista to power.

The remainder of the film focuses on Quimp’s efforts to eliminate the pesky Castro and bring capitalism back to Cuba. He enlists the help of the manic Agent Johnson (John Turturro), who cuts himself with knives and threatens to do worse in order to demonstrate his hatred for the evil “bear” of Communism, as well as Daisy (who has come to Cuba to write a best-selling novel based on her husband’s top secret adventures), and the effeminate Batista (who is concerned that Castro will ruin the interior decorating of his presidential mansion), and proceeds to botch several attempts on Castro’s life with farcical ineptitude. The comedy is ostensibly derived from such moments as when Quimp tries to spray a syringe of poison into Castro’s coffee mug, but misses and ends up staining the previously clean scalp of visiting Russian ambassador Mikhail Gorbachev. Or, a scene where Quimp is forced to drink the LSD-tainted water intended for Castro and undergoes a psychedelic freak-out on national television, mesmerized by a “mongoose” in his pants. These slapstick gags recall the Naked Gun and Hot Shots films, that made fun of Saddam Hussein and the Queen of England in passing, but did not rely solely on such political buffoonery to carry them. And buffoonery is the only word to describe the goofy shenanigans that pass for comedy in Company Man.

Quimp’s many attempts and miserable failures are noteworthy, though, in that they mirror the historical bungling of the CIA. Schemes to taint Castro’s drinking water with LSD, slip him a chemical that would make his beard fall out, and poison his cigars all seem in keeping with the comedic clowning of the film, but are all really inspired by actual plans hatched by the U.S. government during the Cold War. It would seem that the only way to retell the historical idiocy of the U.S. involvement with the Bay of Pigs and its repeated inability to oust Castro is through the kind of dumb joking that constitutes the humor in Company Man. This idea of history as a joke is carried even farther at the end of the film, which sees Agent Quimp transferred out of Cuba to a previously unheard of country called Vietnam. We can only hope that those misadventures won’t merit a sequel to this film.

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