In Paul Weitz’s new comedy In Good Company, starring Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, and Scarlett Johannsen, "synergy" is a "Dilbert"-like corporate buzzword (like "ideation" or "reverbiagize") frequently invoked at the conglomerate where Carter Duryea (Grace) is an up-and-coming hotshot executive and Dan Foreman (Quaid) is an old-fashioned salesman who came with a recently acquired sports magazine.
It’s not just a buzzword, either. There’s a special hand gesture that goes along with it. First you hold your hands up, palms outward, fingers spread apart. This where we are: no synergy. Then you clasp your hands into fists with the tips of the fingers of each hand inside the fist of the other hand, so that your hands make a sort of "S" shape. This is where we need to get to: synergy. Get it? (If you think this kind of thing doesn’t really pass for deep thought in corporate convention halls and conference rooms, you don’t know corporate America.)
Synergy was, in fact, Weitz’s original working title for In Good Company, but at a recent Beverly Hills press conference the writer-director revealed that he had been advised to change it. "Most people thought ‘synergy’ was a science fiction term," Weitz admitted. "And those that didn’t thought it was kind of boring…" Shrugging it off, he said self-mockingly, "I have this delusion that I’m good at titles because I came up with American Pie."
As all this suggests, In Good Company is partly a satire of contemporary corporate culture, with digs at merger mania, mass layoffs, aggressive marketing tie-in practices, political ageism against older employees, and of course fatuous sloganeering. But the film is other things too: an odd-couple buddy picture, a domestic comedy, and a bit of a romance.
In fact, at its heart the film is a story of three relationships. First and foremost is Dan’s testy working relationship with Carter after the older man finds himself demoted and reporting to the whippersnapper sitting behind his old desk. Then there’s Dan’s loving but slightly awkward paternal relationship with his daughter Alex (Johansson), on the cusp of leaving the nest. Finally, there’s what begins as an almost unconscious flirtation between Carter and Alex.
The film makes a point of contrasting Quaid’s successful home life but suddenly rocky career with Carter’s rising professional star and disastrous personal life. "Carter’s got everything on paper," says Grace of the character he plays. "His parents were both absent… but he’s got the job, the right car, the right wife, the right house. But once I go to Dennis’s character’s house, I start to actually see something that I want, but I don’t know how to get. I think he’s dating Dan’s daughter as a consolation prize to actually being in the family. He would trade it all in just to be a member of the family."
This seems right to me: Carter is essentially infatuated with
Dan’s idyllic family life, and Alex represents that life to him.
When Carter asks Dan what makes a marriage work, he’s much taken
by Dan’s obscene but funny and not inaccurate response: "You just
pick the right woman to be in the foxhole with — and when you’re
out of the foxhole you keep your
However, they aren’t in the foxhole yet; and, even though related precepts governing that state of affairs (or affairs of that state, take your pick) are no longer widely acknowledged nowadays, either in movies or in reality, some viewers may understandably wind up disappointed with more than one character over decisions and judgments that are made (or not made).
For his part, Weitz contends that, however Dan might feel about his daughter’s role as Carter’s consolation prize, Alex has her own motivations and has to make her own decisions. "Parents always love their kids too much to really have their best interests in mind," he maintains. "If the thing that’s best for them is to go through a certain amount of pain — to not be in love, or to not have that job, because that’s going to make them grow the most — its almost impossible for parents to root for that."
Weitz adds that what father-daughter conflict there is in the film is only natural growing pains. "The conflict between her and Dennis comes not from a dysfunctional relationship, but that they have a functional relationship, that they love each other, but you have to move on. I think she’s putting her hand close to the fire of what it would be like to be an out-of-control person, and then when it gets too close she pulls back."
This line of reasoning seems dicey to me, probably because of a difference of opinion over the line between being close to the fire and being burned. In other respects, though, the family theme plays out positively; and when In Good Company takes aim at corporate culture, it’s on solid ground.
Commenting on the kind of avaricious acquisitions depicted in the film, Weitz observes, "Obviously, mergers are happening because they’re supposed to make everybody a ton of money — but then the side effect, whether it’s necessary or not, is that a lot of people lose their job. Some people would say it’s behind a lot of things that are happening in the world, what kind of economics we’re going to have.
"And it was fun to have those things be sort of the backdrop to a simple comedy."
It’s not without faults. At times the satire crosses over into silly farce, and, while the last act avoids the most obvious clichés, it’s still a bit tidy. And some of the film’s basic themes seem undermined by an unfortunate subplot involving perplexing decisions by more than one character. But if these faults can’t quite be overlooked, the film’s virtues are rare enough to make the whole package worthwhile.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.