After collaborating on the hilarious screenplay for Antz in 1998, Paul Weitz and his brother Christ co-directed 1999's American Pie, a teen sex comedy that seemed to aim at being the Porky's of its generation. There was an unexpected dash of heart and character development in that first film, though, and the Weitz brothers produced something almost shockingly enjoyable in their 2002 adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel About a Boy, in which a selfish and perennially juvenile Hugh Grant has to grow up fast to become a needed father figure for a lonely 12-year-old. Paul Weitz is writing and directing solo in the current In Good Company, which demonstrates another maturing step in the career of a thirtysomething filmmaker with a commendable blend of commercial instinct and artistic integrity. The current film isn't the exquisite entertainment that About a Boy was, but it endeavors to be about broader issues and may have more staying power.
In Good Company is the story of two men who meet under adverse conditions in their workplace. Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) is the 51-year-old head of advertising at Sports America, a popular and profitable New York City magazine. Dan has a big salary and a house in the suburbs. He's happily married and has two daughters, the older, Alex (Scarlett Johansson), a freshman in college. Life is sweet, prosperous and largely uncomplicated. Then a Rupert Murdoch-like tycoon named Teddy Kay (Malcolm McDowell) buys the magazine and starts mucking things up. From his cell phone company, he reassigns a young executive to his new publishing venture. Twenty-six-year-old Carter Duryea (Topher Grace), who has built his go-getter reputation by marketing dinosaur-shaped cell phones to grade-schoolers, is installed in Dan's corner office with Dan's old responsibilities to lead the advertising division. And if that's not bad enough, Dan shortly learns that his wife, Ann (Marg Helgenberger), is pregnant with a late-life child, that Alex wants to transfer from a state to a private (and far more expensive) university, and that Alex is dating Carter.
Not all of this works. The Carter-Alex connection blooms way too fast and without convincing heat. Carter may be a business whiz kid, but the boy Alex interacts with is a doofus. We never understand why she gets involved with him. Given the magazine's success, the reorganization plan Carter is assigned to execute at Sports America makes almost no sense. He's supposed to raise sales by 20 percent while cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars out of his operating budget. This parody of takeover ruthlessness provides occasions for both comedy, as Carter tries to entertain middle-age clients in a hip-hop bar, and drama, as he's forced to lay off longtime Sports America employees. But it's believable only as a strategy for corporate destruction. And near the end, when Teddy Kay makes an appearance at the magazine to rally his troops with a light show of aphoristic mumbo-jumbo, Dan confronts him with some "emperor's new clothes" observations that seem completely uncharacteristic of the man we've known up until then.
A lot more here is well wrought. Carter has chutzpah to burn, but he also has better sense than we initially suspect. His first decision is to retain Dan rather than fire him. A less interesting character would see Dan as a rival. Carter sees him as a resource. Comparably, a less interesting character than Dan would resign in protest and indignation at his demotion. Or a less interesting script would require that he crawl to save the job he needs to provide for his family. Weitz avoids all such missteps. And intriguing things begin to develop.
Carter is ambitious, but he's not inhumane. He has spine enough to make hard decisions, heart enough to try to save those he can. Dan is a man who knows that survival requires compromise and that organizations require authority but that only responsible authority deserves loyalty. In these regards, In Good Company reminds me of the deliberate ambiguities and paradoxes John Sayles built into Sunshine State. People and situations aren't all one thing or another, but amalgams of many things -- some good, some bad, some admirable, some not. Florida golf resorts may be gobbling up coastal swamp land, but that doesn't mean that golf isn't fun or that golf-course architects are agents of the devil. Sports America may be an industry leader, but that doesn't mean that all its workers are doing a good job or that fresh eyes can't see ways to make things better yet. In the end, In Good Company somewhat chickens out on its more searching and provocative observations and settles for bold-colored conclusions rather than subtleties in shades of complicated gray. But at its best, the picture dares to believe in the possibility of connections, a hope for the human condition that proceeds from treating others with respect.