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'Company' knows its funny business

December 29, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"In Good Company" sounds like what it is: a recipe for how we'd all like to end the year. It's a major studio comedy that's all the things a major studio comedy usually is not, including genial, generous-spirited and unmistakably entertaining.

It's not every day you see a comedy about the consequences of corporate takeovers, let alone one that finds time for a little romance and intergenerational conflicts. "In Good Company" does have a lot of balls in the air, but thanks to smart acting and expert writing and directing, it handles them pretty well.

Much of the credit should go to writer-director Paul Weitz in his initial solo outing. Weitz had collaborated with his brother Chris on the adaptation of Nick Hornby's "About a Boy" and on the first and most palatable of the "American Pie" productions.

Both as part of a team and by himself, Weitz's gentle touch presents a pleasing twist on conventional comic plotting. Adept at not forcing things, he gives this film the kind of seductive spirit that wants to surprise us into smiling instead of bludgeoning us into submission.

Though the cast, especially costars Dennis Quaid and Scarlett Johansson as father and daughter, are all in on the joke, the performance that is really essential to the film's success is the central one by Topher Grace.

Best known as the star of TV's "That '70s Show," Grace has been under the radar on the larger screen despite effective performances in movies as different as "Traffic" and "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!"

Here Grace has the chance to display what looks to be one of the most persuasive comic touches of his generation. There is a lightness to the actor that wears surprisingly well, plus the ability to be pleasant without being sappy and gloat without being irritating. Careers have been built on considerably less.

When Grace's character, Carter Duryea, is introduced, he has a lot to gloat about.

A hot young executive with multinational giant Globecom given to saying things to his bosses like "I am going to be your ninja assassin," Carter has so impressed his superiors that he's been given a plum assignment heading advertising sales for Globecom's newest acquisition, Sports America magazine. That despite being all of 26 years old with no experience to speak of in that area.

It's a promotion that doesn't exactly sit well with the man who's had that job with Sports America (a Sports Illustrated clone) for quite some time and is now being demoted. That would be 51-year-old Dan Foreman (gracefully played by Quaid), who's got so much going on in his private life he almost can't concentrate on this newest crisis.

For one thing, Dan's wife, Ann (Marg Helgenberger of TV's "CSI"), has just become pregnant. For another, his oldest daughter, Alex (Johansson), has decided she wants to study creative writing at New York University, adding a hefty tuition payment to Dan's economic load.

Carter, it turns out, has personal problems of his own, so when Dan inadvertently invites his new boss home for dinner, he leaps at the chance.

There he meets Alex, or actually remeets her, for she mistook him for an intern on a chance cute-meet on an elevator in her dad's building. Soon Alex and Carter will be making doe eyes at each other while Carter and Dan try to forge a workable business relationship. It's a situation not covered in Harvard Business School's core curriculum.

It takes a lot of plotting to get all these strands working together, and there are times when "In Good Company" threatens to become mechanical. But the acting (it's especially good to see Johansson bringing her ethereal qualities to a normal young woman her own age) and the writing and directing pull us over the rough spots.

Let's hope one of the last films of this year is a harbinger of good things in the one to come.


'In Good Company'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual content and drug references

Times guidelines: Some sexual situations

Dennis Quaid...Dan

Topher Grace...Carter

Scarlett Johansson...Alex

Marg Helgenberger...Ann

David Paymer...Morty

Universal Pictures presents a Depth of Field production, released by Universal. Writer-director Paul Weitz. Producers Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz. Executive producers Rodney Liber, Andrew Miano. Director of photography Remi Adefarasin. Editor Myron Kerstein. Production designer William Arnold. Music Stephen Trask. Costume designer Molly Maginnis. Art director Sue Chan. Set decorator David Smith. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Exclusively at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City, (310) 289-4AMC.

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