Topher Grace grows up in "In Good Company," and the film's writer-director, Paul Weitz, grows up right alongside him.
Starring as up-and-coming sales exec Carter Duryea, Grace goes from spewing cliches about "synergy" and being "psyched" to speaking introspectively about his purpose on this planet. He makes the transition look seamless and believable.
Similarly, Weitz has gone from the 1999 gross-out teen romp "American Pie," which he directed with brother Chris, through a series of films about men who are shaken from their complacency and ultimately come to understand what's important in life. After directing "Down to Earth," the unnecessary "Heaven Can Wait" remake starring Chris Rock, Weitz and his brother much more capably adapted Nick Hornby's novel "About a Boy," in which Hugh Grant realized it's OK to connect emotionally with the outside world.
Like Grace, Paul Weitz makes his transition with aplomb.
"In Good Company" is his most ambitious film yet, because besides taking us through a character's self-realization, he's simultaneously taking on the soulless capriciousness of corporate culture.
He realistically depicts a world where takeovers dictate that some employees must euphemistically be "let go" - because the word "fired" just sounds too crass - and where the employees who remain try to overtake each other on the basketball court, complete with trash talk.
Weitz paints a sharply observant picture, and his writing is relevant and resonant; thematically, it's reminiscent of "American Beauty," only without the artistic pretensions.
He sometimes overstates the obvious, though, and the parallels he draws between Carter and Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) - a veteran ad salesman at a sports magazine whose demotion during a corporate takeover makes the much younger Carter his boss - can be a bit facile.
Dan reassures a longtime business associate, "Don't knock the dinosaurs - they ruled the world for millions of years." Cut to Carter, making a ridiculous pitch about marketing cell phones shaped like dinosaurs to children 5 and younger. Just as Carter's wife of seven months (Selma Blair) is leaving him, Dan's wife (Marg Helgenberger of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation") is expanding their family with an unexpected third child. And that's just the beginning. Could two men whose lives are so disparate really share so many coincidences?
But Grace and Quaid complement each other perfectly, despite the innate awkwardness of their characters' relationship. (Carter tells Dan he envisions him as "an awesome wingman" over an uncomfortable sushi lunch, prompting Dan to laugh with condescension.)
Quaid, like the character he plays, has been doing this for so long and is clearly so comfortable in his own skin, he makes you feel as if you're not watching an actor acting, but a real person living his life on screen.
And Scarlett Johansson - as Dan's 18-year-old daughter, Alex, a college student who secretly becomes involved with Carter - provides a much needed source of innocence and optimism in this cold, cruel world.
"In Good Company" is mistakenly being marketed as a romantic comedy; it's many things, but that's not one of them. A palpable nervousness infuses Alex and Carter's first few meetings, though, followed by a sweet giddiness as their covert romance blossoms.
And truly, how could she help but be attracted to him? Grace, the co-star of the sitcom "That '70s Show," has an openness to his face and a sort of irresistible boyish enthusiasm, even after his character matures and learns some harsh realities.
As he proved earlier this year opposite Laura Linney in "p.s.," he's capable of being confident and quick-witted, insecure and vulnerable.
Even though Carter's the boss, he's so eager to be liked and accepted that he acts as if he's perpetually on a job interview.
"In Good Company," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and drug references. Running time: 110 minutes. Three stars out of four.
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