In Good Company (2004)

2004-12-29 (Limited release)

In boy-bonding movies, men learn their most lasting lessons from one another and in spite of themselves. Women hang around at the edges of these tales, offering emotional support, plot complications, or wise counsel, but for the most part letting their boys do their business. Typically, as in Paul Wietz’s latest entry into the genre, initial tensions have to do with generational differences. In the case of In Good Company, these tensions are compounded by a wholly unoriginal girl factor, that is, one man’s daughter is the other’s seeming romantic interest.

The film introduces the two primary boys as they inhabit dissimilar home and work environments. The meaningfully named Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) heads up the marketing department at Sports America magazine. He’s a guy’s guy on the job, appreciated by his old-school, tending-to-misogynistic crew, but also a thoughtful-if-occasionally-confused, loving husband to Ann (Marg Helgenberger) and dad to Alex (Scarlett Johansson) and Jana (Zena Grey). At the moment, ads sales are down and Alex needs NYU tuition, but Dan’s still thrilled when he learns that Ann is unexpectedly pregnant (he’s partly thrilled because this means that the EPT he’s found in the kitchen trash is not Alex’s, but Ann’s, a discovery that grants Quaid a good bit of wordless comedy early in the proceedings).

Across the universe, young Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) wows his slick superiors at the odiously named GlobeCom by selling cell phones, tied in with kids’ breakfast cereal. So, when the company buys out the sports magazine, he’s assigned to sell ad space, that is, to be Dan’s boss. No one — including Carter — believes he’s actually earned his new position, or really has an idea what to do in it. But he talks the talk, he’s young, and he’s willing to pretend faith in the “synergy” preached by GlobeCom’s corporate raiding chief Teddy (Malcolm McDowell). While he’s a whiz kid professional, though, Carter endures a personal mini-meltdown when his slinky wife Kimberly (Selma Blair) leaves him in the film’s first few minutes. Lonely and lost, he, like Dan, is in need of a male friend.

And so In Good Company pushes Carter and Dan up against one another, so that they can work through their mutual anxieties, resentments, and jealousies. When Carter invites himself to Dan’s house for dinner, he’s not only awkward and z little pathetic, but he’s also in position to start up a relationship with Alex, who’s looking for a way to break out of her good daughter role. Alternating between pouty and witty, Alex doesn’t quite grasp the complexities of her family’s finances; when she decides against a tennis scholarship so she can live in the city, Dan says okay, and takes out a second mortgage to pay tuition as well as all the coming-baby necessities. As In Good Company is about the boys, Alex and Ann (or Jana) don’t interact much; they represent hurdles for the protagonists (or maybe, more generously, they embody opportunities for hapless guys to become empowered guys; in any event, they’re not independent entities).

Indeed, though Johansson delivers another of her nuanced, seductive, slightly recessive performances, Alex only comes to screen life when Carter comes on the scene. They meet cute in the elevator on the way to her dad’s office, neither knowing the other’s identity, and though she’s ready to blow him off as a yet another sports magazine intern, when he confesses to her that, though he’s got a real job (he doesn’t tell her which one), he’s scared because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Intrigued by his vulnerability, she smiles. When they meet again at her house, Alex is further moved to date this kid: he’s half her dad’s age but his boss, and however she comprehends this situation (again, the complexities appear to elude her), the decision to keep the romance a secret will come back to bite everyone.

They deceive Dan even as Carter is trying to learn from and ingratiate himself with Dan, in order to feel like a son (by sleeping with the daughter — yes, it’s a little creepy). This layering of motives and lies makes for the sort of romantic comedy moments you’d expect: close calls, awkward conversations, cutesy stammering by Carter and best-foot-forwarding by Dan. As this piling on of plot suggests, In Good Company doesn’t spend too much time on any one angle, though all have to do with father and child relationships, while Ann is relegated to the expected ultrasound appointment and another scene where she watches Dan muck up building the crib.

The movie’s focus on Dan’s coming to consciousness — or more precisely, realizing how healthy he is compared to the cocky kid who makes him feel envious and uneasy — only reinforces what’s familiar. Globalization is nefarious. Nuclear families are good. And insecure boys will be boys.