A frivolously hectic schedule of year-end debates about the best movie of 2004 had me consulting the dictionary recently to clarify the distinction between humanism and humane. ”Humanism” means concern with the interests, needs, and welfare of humans; ”humane” refers to having the good qualities of human beings, as kindness, mercy, or compassion. In other words, a film isn’t required to preach ”good qualities” in order to shine with an astute understanding of human beings; nor does a story that rewards goodness necessarily accurately reflect ”the condition or quality of being human.” And with the Talmudic portion of today’s essay out of the way, I suggest that while Sideways is a great, deep movie grounded in humanism, In Good Company is a very nice, light movie that brakes for all that’s humane — a bouncy, optimistic comedy about the wisdom of middle-aged male experience and its positive influence on cocky MBA youth, with theoretical applications for creating a more benevolent American corporate culture. (I know, I know — as if.)
Or to put it yet another way, this winning comedy is about the contrast between the enduringly pleasing, quintessentially baby boomer masculinity of Dennis Quaid (in a role that makes ideal use of his Quaidness) and the addictively delightful Gen-X charms of Topher Grace in a role that once and for all launches the nimble 26-year-old actor into stardom (perhaps even on the road to Hanksness.) Yet while Quaid’s 51-year-old Dan Foreman ultimately triumphs over Grace’s Carter Duryea, the whippersnapper half Dan’s age who’s brought in to be his boss in the ad department of a major magazine, the older actor never jostles his younger colleague in a display of alpha malehood. In Good Company is a hopeful movie that says all a young fellow needs to become a good man — in love as well as in business, and possibly behind the wheel of his Porsche 911 Carrera, too — is the guidance of a father figure, and both Quaid and Grace hold up their ends of the bargain with easy dignity. This is a movie so charitable that even a romance between Carter and Dan’s yummy daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson) — an outrage of impropriety to Dan on various levels of Freudian interest — doesn’t destroy the older guy’s sense of compassion for the snotty kid pawing his little girl. (Committed love and seasoned hubba-hubba come to Dan, without strings, from his yummy wife, played by Marg Helgenberger.)
In writer-director Paul Weitz’s refreshingly cheery Father Knows Best for the new millennium, anything can be solved with a few lines of bright dialogue and the sight of Quaid and Grace in well-cut suits. And in January, those warming rays of sunshine may be enough to commend In Good Company above so much other, deader dead-of-winter fare. Besides, with Grace’s charisma, it’s impossible to hate Carter even when he’s at his most doltish, telling Dan that the veteran ad guy would make an ”awesome wingman.” (The new squadron leader has zilch magazine ad experience, but he has impressed his superiors in a previous gig by marketing cell phones to tots.) Indeed, In Good Company would go all bad were it not for Grace’s valuable ability to play an insensitive jerk and a joke’s-on-me good sport simultaneously, with some of the best comic timing in the business. When Carter knows he’s in over his head (i.e., every day he walks into his office), Grace adopts a look of quizzical ”this is not my beautiful life/how did I get here?” determination. And when he’s happy — because of a bitchin’ new ride or because of bitchin’ hot Alex — he beams with the openness of the excited, underloved kid he is. Of course, there are sharks in this corporate fishbowl — no comedy, or tragedy, about being in the company of men exists without them. But the two designated meanies — Malcolm McDowell in an uncredited role as the sinister, psychobabbling CEO of an acquisitive corporate conglomerate and Clark Gregg as a heartless management tool — are such cartoons that it’s clear Carter doesn’t belong in the same polluted waters.
Three years ago, Weitz directed About a Boy, adapting Nick Hornby’s similarly humane comic novel about an irresponsible, emotionally adolescent bloke who begins to master adulthood only after a little kid comes to need him. In Good Company is, in a way, a mirror-image study in masculine development, featuring an emotionally adolescent corporate prodigy who begins to master adulthood only after discovering he needs the help and counsel of an older man. The denouement of the movie is as preposterously happy as a children’s fairy tale. But the moral is ageless.