In Good Company

A comedy doesn’t need to have any underlying purpose to be a great film, but some of the most memorable ones do. “In Good Company” brilliantly walks the line between comedy and poignancy, being utterly funny without being shticky, and being touching without being shmaltzy.

It was written and directed by Paul Weitz, who also adapted and directed “About a Boy,” a similarly excellent film that also blended belly laughs with heart-tugging intimacy. Even his directorial debut, “American Pie,” had a heart underneath all that crudeness (a fact that most of its imitators have forgotten).

So we are in good hands as we observe the parallel lives of Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) and Carter Duryea (Topher Grace). Dan is a 25-year veteran of the advertising industry, currently working as head of marketing for Sports America magazine — that is, until it is acquired by GlobeCom, a Fox-like conglomerate run by the Rupert Murdoch-like Teddy K (Malcolm McDowell). At that point, Teddy K’s crew lays off several employees, demotes Dan to a lower level in the marketing staff, and installs Carter as the new department head.

Carter is a 26-year-old ad whiz whose most recent work for GlobeCom has been marketing cell phones to 5-year-olds by giving the phones reptilian colors and dinosaur-ish ringtones. He has no experience in magazine advertising, however, and as he confides in a stranger on his way up to the Sports America offices on his first day, he is “scared s***less.” The stranger turns out to be Dan’s 18-year-old daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson), and Carter winds up dating her without Dan’s knowledge, but we will leave those complications for later.

Immediately we see Weitz’s genius in the way he has structured the film. Normally, when a 26-year-old spoiled corporate brat becomes the supervisor of a 51-year-old family man and threatens that family man’s job security, we side with the family man and hate the corporate brat. But Weitz makes them both protagonists, shows us both of their lives and all of their feelings, and we sympathize with both men. Carter hasn’t become fully assimilated by the dehumanizing corporate machine; he’s just caught up in it at the moment — caught up so fully that his young wife (Selma Blair) walks out on him, leaving him with nothing. Apart from work, he has no life, no friends, no family. It sucks to be Dan Foreman right now, but it’s no picnic being Carter Duryea, either.

Weitz plays with the parallelism throughout the film, at one point giving us twin scenes of Dan taking out a second mortgage while Carter signs his divorce papers, and inflicting each man, at different times, with arm injuries. They are two sides of the same coin, Carter perhaps being a younger version of Dan, the one who is still at the crossroads of his life.

Without belaboring his point with heavy-handedness, Weitz also puts a human face on the corporate mindset, showing the casualties of capricious takeovers and rampant downsizing while also mocking corporate B.S. terms like “synergy” (a word that means nothing but that business types use to sound motivational). Carter goes around trying to get his marketing team “psyched” for an “awesome” quarter, but he knows how hollows he sounds, and Dan knows it, too. They’re going to need to each other’s help if this new arrangement is going to work.

And so we go from one jokey premise — old guy gets a whippersnapper for a boss! — to another one, as Carter invites himself to Sunday dinner at the Foreman home, awkwardly trying to have a surrogate family while his employee, the humiliated but good-humored Dan, is resigned to the fate of having his 26-year-old boss in his life. The scene is handled marvelously, though, and not at all jokily, brimming with a succession of major laughs whose subtext helps establish the characters’ relationships with each other: father/daughter, boss/employee, and husband/wife (Dan’s wife is played by “CSI’s” Marg Helgenberger). All of these connections are given their due over the course of the film; this is a movie about people trying to make their way in the world, not about something as two-dimensional as “my boss came to dinner and we had to order pizza.”

See, the movie’s ABOUT something, and it makes you laugh while it’s being about it, and I don’t know how you can do any better than that. Its only problem is that it resolves everything a little too neatly, and it indulges in the dreaded cliché of a peon standing up to a CEO in a public setting and being applauded for it, rather than being belittled or fired, as would surely occur in real life.

Topher Grace is fast becoming one of my favorite young actors. He has a tremendous skill for understated comedy (honed on “That ’70s Show,” where I believe he often plays straight man to the other, wackier characters), plus some real gravitas where it’s needed. The fact that we’re able to like Carter at all, despite the complications he represents in Dan’s life, says a lot for Grace’s, well, grace.

Dennis Quaid at times displays a leering sardonicism of Jack Nicholson-ian proportions, but he supports Dan’s moments of despair and cynicism with a tender love for his family and a good-hearted devotion to protecting them. He remains, through it all, a man who is fundamentally happy and who believes in the essential goodness of people. That sort of attitude is old-fashioned in modern corporate America, but the film suggests that maybe there’s a place for old dinosaurs like him. Dinosaurs are cool, after all; just check out those cell phones.

A- (1 hr., 50 min.; PG-13, scattered profanity, a brief incident of mooning.)