Universal // 2004 // 110 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // July 25th, 2005
Are you all psyched?
Paul Weitz, one of the two brothers behind the original American Pie, has had a rather erratic career. After the monster success of that particular boys-and-libidos teen-flick update, the director nearly fell off the map with his remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (or Heaven Can Wait  -- take your pick), the disastrous Chris Rock vehicle Down to Earth. It wasn't until 2002's About a Boy that Weitz bounced back, adapting Nick Hornby's wonderful source material into a thoughtful and winning comedy -- one of the best films of that year.
Now comes In Good Company, Weitz's first directorial effort from a wholly original script. Free of any help from teenage libidos or Nick Hornby, how does Weitz fare as a writer-director? And was Down to Earth nothing more than a fluke, or a sign of things to come?
Middle-aged Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid, Far From Heaven, Traffic) is at a crossroads in his life. His wife (Marg Helgenberger, Erin Brockovich) has just learned that she's pregnant. His daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation, The Spongebob Squarepants Movie), wants to move out of the house and transfer to an expensive new college. Worst of all, though, is that the ad agency he's worked for his whole life has recently been the target of a corporate takeover -- and, with it, a corporate "restructuring" that leaves Dan's position usurped in favor of 26-year old Carter Duryea (Topher Grace, Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!). As Dan copes with his new role at work, a daughter who's drifting away, and impending middle-aged fatherhood, Carter realizes that it's more than just Dan's job that he wants -- it's his daughter, too.
Paul Weitz's In Good Company is a smart film. It's smart about contemporary American business. It's smart about love -- love between men and women, between husbands and wives, between fathers and daughters, between friends. It's smart about growing up and about growing older. It's smart about change and the ways we face it. It's smart about life.
For a mainstream Hollywood film to get just one of these things right is a kind of miracle in today's cinematic climate. If one does, it's likely to become a huge commercial hit. If it gets two things right, it becomes a critical darling. Three things right, and we give it the Academy Award.
Of course, all of this makes it sound as though In Good Company is the best film of this (or any) year. It isn't. It's a smart film that is not without its share of problems, both in its conception and in its execution. I suppose I just want to recognize that Paul Weitz has attempted something ambitious and that, while still coming up short at times, he ought to be recognized for reaching. So few commercial films do these days.
Take the Scarlett Johansson character, for example. She is a good kid, filled with talent and drive, and she loves her father -- they've got one of those buddy-buddy relationships that the movies love to romanticize -- but Weitz is too canny to make her into some kind of one-dimensional Stepford kid. She wants to move away from home. She wants to attend an expensive college. She'd rather pursue creative writing than tennis, which she's shown a real knack for her whole life. She wants to grow up, and to do so out of the reach of her father. The part itself is underwritten (Alex is more object than character, really, existing to round out Grace's and Quaid's characters), but Johansson's performance is so subtle and skilled that yes, we really do see this girl mature from teenager to adult in a two-hour span.
What makes this even more miraculous is that Weitz's screenplay allows Quaid, as her father, to actually let her go. There are no cartoonish panic attacks at the prospect of a girl maturing into a woman (there is at least one cartoonish panic attack, but it's for a different reason). There are no sitcom-inspired sequences in which a grown man attempts to outsmart his youthful daughter in order to (a) catch her in the act of something or (b) trick her into staying at home (we'll call this the She's Out of Control syndrome). Weitz has too much respect for his characters and his actors for such simplistic devices -- the movie would rather consider the relationships between them and allow them to exist in the Real World, not the Movie one. It's what the film does best -- lets its characters live and breathe and relate and connect as free of artifice as an inherently artificial medium can muster.
But then, as I've said, the film is not without its problems. The satire of corporate America could be a little more pointed (while I appreciate that the film actually wants to say something, it's the human relationships that make it work). More often than not, the satiric elements miss their mark; conceits like the Teddy K character (Malcolm McDowell, The Company) and cell phones for six-year-olds are funny, but a bit too broad for the kind of sharpness Weitz is aiming for. There's an overabundance of pop songs on the soundtrack -- good songs, no doubt, but overused in too many montage sequences (and lacking the cohesive voice of About a Boy's Badly Drawn Boy songs). Topher Grace, who is clearly talented and has likeability in spades, seems to be stuck giving the same performance over and over. His work in In Good Company is solid (as it usually is), but possibly too reminiscent of previous turns in TV and film. It's time to see him stretch himself as an actor; hearing reports that he's been cast as one of the villains in the upcoming Spider-Man 3 gives me hope. It doesn't help that he's playing against actors like Johansson, a never-better Dennis Quaid, and Marg Helgenberger (as Quaid's wife), who is luminous and natural and criminally underused.
Universal has put together a decent package for In Good Company. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, enhanced for 16 x 9 playback. The image looks as it should: bright, clean, and sharply detailed -- for a film this recent, we really have come to expect no less. The 5.1 audio track is perfectly serviceable, too, balancing Weitz's clever dialogue with the pop-song-heavy soundtrack and not ever doing disservice to one side or the other.
There's a strong selection of supplemental material on hand, making this disc marginally better than most "Special Edition" releases. First up is a feature-length commentary by writer-director Weitz and star Topher Grace. Weitz takes center stage, discussing the ins and outs of the production and expounding on a number of his choices with surprising intelligence and clarity (surprising only for the guy who made the pie-humping movie); Grace seems to be there more to hang out and make the occasional comment or joke than to provide much information. It's a decent talk, but hardly anything spectacular.
What is fairly spectacular is the collection of deleted scenes on hand. It's rare that the sequences cut from a film are just as enjoyable as what was left in (typically, it's pretty easy to see why the cuts were made), but that's the case here. Perhaps it's because the writing is so strong, or because the characters are so likable or the actors so relaxed that the scenes work so well; whatever the case, they make a great addition to the film and inclusion to the disc. The scenes can be played with optional commentary by Weitz, but the value of those comments is limited mostly to reasons why the sequences had to be cut (the film is too long even in its finished form).
Also included are seven brief, engaging, but ultimately forgettable featurettes, dealing with various aspects of production, and some profiles of the cast and crew.
Sure, there are better films than In Good Company, but fewer and fewer of those seem to be emerging from the Hollywood system these days. When one comes along that's as smart, funny, and heartfelt as this, we'd be wise to give it a chance. Who knows when the next one is going to come along?
All parties are free to go, and the court hopes that Paul Weitz continues his streak. And that he stays away from desserts of any kind.
Review content copyright © 2005 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
* Commentary by Writer-Director Paul Weitz and Actor Topher Grace
* Seven Production Featurettes
* Cast and Filmmaker Profiles
* Official Site