A review of In Good Company

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

In Good Company
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace
Director: Paul Weitz
Color, Closed-captioned, Widescreen, Dolby
PG13, Universal Studios, May 10, 2005
Run Time: 110min, ASIN: B0007VZ9D0

In Good Company, written and directed by Paul Weitz, begins with a clock (time: of day, of life); it is early morning, and we see a man in bed, Dan Foreman, an advertising salesman and department director played by Dennis Quaid. He gets up and watches television news, and learns about his own company’s sale, before seeing discarded packaging for a pregnancy test in the garbage can (he looks at a photograph of his college-age daughter, played by Scarlett Johansson), and he thinks the test might be his daughter’s. He meets with an older businessman who tells him that he’s not planning to advertise in the sports magazine. Meanwhile Topher Grace’s Carter Duryea is a marketing man introducing phones in the shape of dinosaurs, an attempt to reach children with a company’s product, the beginning of a life-long relationship. Grace’s character works for Ted King (Malcolm McDowell), a wealthy and well-known business-owner, who has just bought Dan Foreman’s company. Carter, a very ambitious young man, is being taken with his tigerish middle-management boss Steckle (Clark Gregg) to help run Dan’s company and to take over Dan’s job. (Topher Grace’s Carter Duryea is being groomed for success.)

Returning home, Dan looks in on his wife Ann, then his daughter Alex, and after asking his wife about his daughter, his wife says she herself is pregnant. Thus: he has new responsibility and uncertain employment. Everyone in his New York office is worried about their jobs. Some of the most affecting lines and scenes throughout the film concern that worry; and that uncertainty—at once professional and personal—reverberates in the audience (things thought secured by age, effort, inheritance, or status are threatened). When Dan is told about his demotion, he asks the man who tells him, Why are you smiling? The man—who himself will be fired late in the film—denies smiling, says his lips naturally curl up. The masochism and bitterness of a tormented mind (a subjective perspective) produces one kind of comedy; and the amusement in seeing another’s downfall (an objective view) produces a different kind, one less potent and more cruel. It might be easier to laugh at an individual in life than in the cinema (in life, we respond from our social selves, and in the cinema we respond from our interior selves: in life, we bend to power, but in the cinema we sympathize with the individual). Just as there are situations in which logic fails, there are situations in which empathy fails—and then, there’s humor or violence. The sensibility of In Good Company, like that of Hitch, is civilized, intelligent, and light, without being frivolous, pretentious, or unrealistic about human behavior: the sensibility of the film is mostly that of Dennis Quaid’s Dan Foreman.

Carter and Dan’s daughter, Alex, meet in an elevator, neither knowing whom the other is: and he admits that he’s starting a new job and he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Dan’s daughter has arrived for tennis with her father (Dan falls while they play; and does push-ups, possibly in compensation). Alex, a writer, tells her father that she wants to transfer from a state school to a school in the city: NYU, which is more expensive.

Carter is shown Dan’s office as his own (“tasty,” Carter says); and Dan walks in—and there’s a long, appraising handshake between the two, with close-ups. Quaid’s face seems that of a good and strong man, with appealing features, but in some scenes his face is photographed so that it looks hard and red, with the stoniness of age. Alone, Dan angrily throws something at the mementos on one of his shelves. Carter, basking in his success, buys a new car (“tasty”); and has an accident getting out of the car lot. He arrives home to see that his wife has packed up to leave him after seven months of marriage (it’s not the first time she is leaving). It’s clear they haven’t communicated well; and it’s a weird breaking-up scene, which makes it more interesting.

Carter says that Dan and his staff have to increase ad pages by twenty percent. Carter thinks this is possible with synergy, by using Ted King’s other companies to get the message out about the magazine (putting sports facts from the magazine on cereal boxes, for instance). Dan and Carter have lunch; and when Dan asks what’s in it for him if he helps the department be a success—Carter says he gets to keep his job. Quaid is a believable professional man, a man who has been successful but who does not seem particularly ambitious, someone who is ethical without making a display of it; but Grace, while likable, lacks a certain intensity and drive in this film, and that’s notable as his character is a baby tiger (his teeth and claws aren’t as large as they might be but he has them). We see Carter running—on a treadmill near a photograph of nature (part of the convenience and the unnatural regimentation of his life). Carter is lonely after his wife leaves him and Dan inadvertently asks him home to dinner, where Carter meets Dan’s daughter Alex again. Carter and the young woman talk and play a game in the garage; and Dan calls them both kids when he says dinner is ready, a natural mistake considering Carter’s age—and contrasting status. Scarlett Johansson makes a uniquely pretty and convincing young athlete who is also a writer; and she is interesting to watch. When she tells Carter in her husky voice about what she’s responding to—what she wants, how she doesn’t want to be seen, the predictability she’s trying to avoid, all sound very familiar. Dan helps Alex move into NYU, and jokes he’s had surveillance cameras set up. Dan and his wife sign a second mortgage to help pay for tuition; and Carter signs divorce papers.

Carter’s style is different from that of Dan: he doesn’t allow Dan to take clients out as Dan would like—Carter substitutes a rap concert, but Carter likes Dan. “You have people who need you,” Carter says. (Of course, Carter says that when he’s telling Dan he has to fire long time staff: do you want to sacrifice family for co-workers? Most of the scenes of people being fired, particularly one featuring actor David Paymer, are done with distinctive care—Paymer’s face is familiar but this movie made me learn his name).

Carter, renting a place in Tribeca, sees Dan’s daughter at a downtown café and the two speak (again, a very natural conversation). Carter says his mother was a hippie, and his father was a wealthy drug-taking artist. The two walk in Chinatown, have dinner, kiss; and she invites him to her dorm room, where (he’s nervous; she’s not—she puts on Spanish music and lights incense) they make love. They continue to date, unknown to Dan.

Carter asks Dan about the secret of marriage. “You find the right one to be in the foxhole with and when you’re not in the foxhole, keep your dick in your pants,” says Dan. It is at Dan’s surprise birthday party that he begins to suspect a relationship between his daughter and his young boss: and that is confirmed when he sees them at a restaurant together, and feeling his daughter compromised, he hits Carter, who says he loves her. Dan and his daughter have words (he says he preferred her when she was a child); and then they come together when wife/mother Ann has a pregnancy scare and they go to the hospital. “You don’t have to change Dad,” she says. “Yes, I do,” he says.

Teddy King arrives in the office, and talks about the importance of synergy to the assembled company; and Dan asks questions about the responsibility of companies to employees and clients—to citizens. Corporations have been described as formal (logical, respectable) in appearance but sociopathic (amoral, self-serving, rampaging) in behavior: and Dan’s question, so calm, so intelligent, so simple, has an element of radicality. Intelligence is not just the use of reason, but an accurate sense of its applicability, which Dan has. Both Dan and Carter are threatened by the middle-management boss Steckle (Clark Gregg), who is upset by Dan’s question and thinks Dan insulted Teddy King—but it soon seems nothing more than bluster as Teddy King sells the company and Dan gets his old job back and Carter and Steckle lose theirs. Carter visits Dan after a month and thanks Dan for teaching him things worth learning; and they hug. Carter, in the lobby, bumps into Dan’s daughter Alex, who was not really ready for a serious relationship. Dan and his wife have a baby daughter and Dan calls Carter with the news: Carter, with his portable phone, is running—this time on a beach rather than on a treadmill (a return to nature).

In Good Company is not innovative in style or theme, but it is germane to how we live now. Films are fantasies that require of us money, time, and belief, and sometimes in those fantasies are glimpses of what is real. In Good Company is entertaining, and may be no more than a building block in the careers of Topher Grace and Scarlett Johansson, but it may be something more for Dennis Quaid. It is further evidence that if one survives one can have a body of work that is worthy of respect. Quaid’s filmography includes, among other films: I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1977), Breaking Away (1979), All Night Long (1981), The Right Stuff (1983), The Big Easy (1987), Suspect (1987), Everybody’s All American (1988), Postcards from the Edge (1990), Wyatt Earp (1994), Something to Talk About (1995), Dragonheart (1996), The Parent Trap (1998), Any Given Sunday (1999), Frequency (2000), Traffic (2000), Far From Heaven (2002), and Cold Creek Manor (2003). He may be more rewarding to watch now than when he was younger, as there’s now more experience in his face and more feeling in his manner. That feeling might be sympathy or hurt, but whatever it is it doesn’t seem like weakness: rather, it seems to be part of the knowledge of what it means to be a man. I saw, only days ago, his performance in Far From Heaven, in which he plays a man whose erotic conflicts bring him pain and whose pain makes him unkind to a very dear woman. His character was understandable without being very likable—and he gave a brave performance. In year 2004 alone, Dennis Quaid was in three very different films: the science fiction The Day After Tomorrow, about climate shifts that lead to worldwide catastrophe, Flight of the Phoenix, about surviving a plane crash in the Mongolian desert, and In Good Company, in which Quaid plays a very likable man, and that rare thing: an adult, a mature person. (The last two films opened at the end of the year, with In Good Company opening on December 29.) It’s very nice to rediscover someone who has long been here.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research. His work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, The City Sun, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Identity Theory.com, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Option, PopMatters.com, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, TechnologyReports.net, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, and World Literature Today.