When I'm getting over a cold, I like to see romantic comedies. It's part of my reintegration into society, after spending several days hiding and horizontal, watching Moment of Truth movies on Lifetime and abusing Thera-Flu®. When I finally have the energy to leave the house, I don't want to be mentally challenged. I need to be totally healthy to see Rwanda genocide biopics or whatever turgid masterpiece is out at the moment. In a sore-nose and phlegm-spitting state, I need to be soothed by the vapidity of jokes based on 1970s-era notions of gender difference, of characters created by Warner Brothers' Random Cliché Generator 9000 and of the tried-and-true romantic-comedy plot: boy meets girl, boy and girl break up over silly misunderstanding, boy and girl get back together, boy makes publicly humiliating apology-cum-marriage proposal.
With this in mind, and with my third cold of the season going into remission, I went to see In Good Company. Based on the trailer, which told me that twenty-six-year-old Topher Grace is fifty-one-year-old Dennis Quaid's new boss in some anonymous suit-and-tie company, I was expecting The Secret of My Success: Part Two. (And I was hoping for gratuitous butt shots of Dennis Quaid.) I'm sure you all remember that cheery Michael J. Fox vehicle about the mailroom guy who moves into an empty office and starts wearing suits and talking in MBA-ese, thus conning his way into the executive boardroom and Helen Slater's panties. I loved that movie as a kid, just as I loved all those neo-Madison Avenue movies from the 1980s: 9 to 5, Big and Working Girl. These movies all had the same-classically American-plot: through reinvention, self-reliance and lies, the underdog can make it in big business.
These movies all had the same-classically American-plot: through reinvention, self-reliance and lies, the underdog can make it in big business.
Nowadays, that theme isn't terribly popular. The big office comedies are more like Office Space, in which the underdog vocally refuses to follow the capitalistic path and drops out. In 13 Going On 30 (Big with a girl), Jennifer Garner loses the climactic business contest to the bitchy corporate thief-and quits. In Zoolander, Ben Stiller starts a literacy centre when he discovers that the fashion industry is corrupt. Basically, capitalism, according to Hollywood, isn't trendy anymore. This is ironic because Hollywood is perhaps the most appallingly money-driven, unethical and Darwinian industry-besides pop music-in the United States.
I probably only noticed this trend during In Good Company because I was expecting The Secret of My Success and I got The Anti-Globalization Manifesto. No, the movie isn't about Che T-shirts and WTO protests. It's about a middle-aged man (Quaid) who sells ads for a magazine just like Sports Illustrated. When the magazine is sold to a company that is a cross between News Corp. and Microsoft, he's demoted and a twenty-six-year-old whiz kid (Grace) is installed as his boss. The whiz kid uses words like "synergy" and has no idea what he's doing. The middle-aged man has twenty-year-long relationships with clients and "believes" in the magazine. The whiz kid has no emotional life; his wife leaves him the day he arrives at his new job. The middle-aged man has a fabulous wife (Marg Helgenberger) and two lovely daughters, one of whom is a tennis star and wants to be a writer. The whiz kid falls in love with her.
The wannabe writer is played by Scarlett Johansson and is supposed to be the polar opposite of the whiz kid's ex-wife, a depressed dullard barely brought to life by Selma Blair. But Johansson plays every role as a depressed dullard, so all you can take from the whiz kid's romantic choices is that he's got fucked-up taste. Well, that and his interest in the writer shows how he's becoming a better person, someone more like the middle-aged man. Predictably, when the middle-aged man finds out his boss is boinking his daughter, all hell breaks loose. The middle-aged man slugs the whiz kid and makes a speech, during the head of MicroNewsSoftCorp's visit to the magazine, that is something like a cross between "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" and "Have you no sense of decency...?" Actually, wait. That's wrong. I just wish the speech had been like that. It was actually quite dull, even if the point was admirable.
I have an incredibly soft, tender, almost bruised spot in my heart for Dennis Quaid. His charming, tough-yet-sensitive salesman was a moving creation. I know men like him; they're not that hot, but they are that good.
Rereading what I've written so far, it may appear that I didn't like the movie. Actually, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I have an incredibly soft, tender, almost bruised spot in my heart for Dennis Quaid. His charming, tough-yet-sensitive salesman was a moving creation. I know men like him; they're not that hot, but they are that good. And Topher Grace is not a joke waiting to happen. He's not just another teen star with good publicists and no talent, like Joshua Jackson or Hilary Duff. Grace is Tom Hanks waiting to happen, a gifted comic actor who can be funny and sad and real. He's not a ham, he's a natural. His transformation from someone who would win on The Apprentice to someone who has a soul, while a clichéd process, was lovely and-um, this could be the cold medicine making me feel this way-downright touching.
I just wish that these complex characters, and not a deus ex machina, had resolved the movie. About a minute after Dennis Quaid goes all Revolutionary Road-well, I won't give it away. But it might as well have been a black screen with "then a miracle occurs" typed across it. Of course, romantic comedy and lottery-level wish fulfillment go together like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Wanting a true-to-life ending must have meant that I was feeling better.
Ted Gideonse has written about the arts (and other stuff) for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Salon and the Advocate. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. Bring Me the Axe appears every other Friday.