TIn Good Company opened the same week that Academy Award nominations were announced. Top honors went to movies about big-shouldered men: a crazy-brilliant inventor and filmmaker, a man who saved a thousand people from machete-wielding Hutus, the quiet genius who invented Peter Pan. Now comes Dennis Quaid as Dan Foreman, a suburban fifty-something who sells ad space in a sports magazine. Can this man be a hero?
On that slim premise director Paul Weitz builds a slim but amiable movie, one that ingratiates itself more through its two lead characters than through its lightweight plot. Dan has been selling ads for American Sports for decades, and has risen to be head of the department. But then the magazine is bought by GlobeCom, a multinational corporation run by a shock-headed, scary-looking magnate called Teddy K (Malcolm McDowell). A young GlobeCom hotshot is brought in to take over the magazine ad sales: Carter Duryea (Topher Grace), who won Teddy K’s attention by marketing cell phones to kindergartners.
Carter is 26–literally half Dan’s age. He takes over Dan’s job and Dan’s office, which rankles a bit, but Dan has a daughter going to NYU, a second mortgage, and a new baby on the way. He has to cling to whatever job they’ll let him have.
If there’s something Hollywood doesn’t love, it’s big business; if there’s another, it’s ad execs. So it’s already a stretch that we’re invited not to despise these men, but to sympathize with them. That sympathy is won more swiftly than you’d imagine, due to the appeal of these characters. We see Carter Duryea as a tightly wound neophyte spouting clichés about “synergy,” gulping down Starbucks and sushi, and telling Dan, with galling brashness, that he would make an “awesome wing man.” But in a tender scene he lies in bed with his sullen wife, Kimberly (well played by Selma Blair), thrilled and scared by his rocketing career. “Teddy K knows my name!” he says. “I’m being groomed. Do you know what that means?” “That you’re a chimpanzee?” she growls.
It’s not much of a surprise when Carter comes home to find Kimberly’s bags by the door. He asks if she’s sleeping with someone else, and she pouts before replying, “I was. I broke up with him.” Carter manages to say, “That must have been very hard for him.” In such small, swift strokes, Carter is transformed from an annoying kid to a decent and suffering young man. It’s hard to go on hating him.
Dennis Quaid, meanwhile, is portraying a more familiar character, the old-fashioned dad who works hard, worries about his daughters, and maintains the facial expression of a wounded bear. Instead of Dan envying the young man’s carefree life, it’s the other way around: Carter envies the stability and love of Dan’s home. We learn that Carter’s mom, a hippie, doesn’t approve of his corporate lifestyle, and his artist-druggie dad abandoned the family when the boy was four. Dan has what Carter’s been looking for all his life.
When someone warns Carter that he’s going to end up like Dan, he replies thoughtfully, “I guess that would be O.K.” The young hotshot in a Porsche will turn into the rumpled older guy with kids and bills, and it’s O.K.? That’s not usually Hollywood’s take.
Further, when Carter asks Dan how he achieved his wonderful life, Dan immediately says that the key is marital fidelity. He tells Carter, “You just pick the right one to be in the foxhole with, and then when you’re outside of the foxhole, you keep your d**k in your pants.”
Well, again, this isn’t the usual message delivered to young people, nor the usual image we’re given of what they want. But maybe the idea of youngsters reveling in endless party-down freedom is more a projection of Boomer tastes than something young people actually want for themselves. Maybe Boomers, with their carefully hands-off, non-directive parenting style, have reared children who are not so much free as insecure. Maybe they’re actually yearning for a stable home and a faithful marriage, and no one has ever taught them how to get there.
Maybe one day we’ll look back at In Good Company as the first film to pick up on this subtle change in the cultural weather. It’s not a great film; while Carter and Dan are engrossing, a subplot involving Dan’s daughter Alex (played by luminous Scarlett Johansson) isn’t quite logical. The acoustic guitar score becomes annoying, and the ending is less than satisfying. Director Weitz also makes some poor visual choices, as when he fills the entire screen with enormous faces for no reason, or when lighting Teddy K with a blue light from below, in case we don’t realize how evil he is.
But the theme of a regular, hardworking dad as hero–as someone a stylish young man would envy–has not gotten a lot of play in recent decades. We can be grateful for Dan Foreman, who gives us the most realistic, put-upon, admirable dad since George Bailey saved the Building & Loan.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.