After spending 2004 battling desert sandstorms, the Mexican troops at the Alamo and the fastest frostbite ever recorded on film, Dennis Quaid has finally met his match: Topher Grace. Writer-director Paul Weitz’s follow-up to his nimble, entertaining adaptation of About a Boy, this film casts the two stars in what at first seems to be a timely tale of downsizing: a generation-gap test of wills between Dan, a demoted, doting, fiftysomething dad, and Carter, the desperately enthusiastic hotshot-dork hired to take his place. With these two, it’s not so much a standoff as it is a smirk-off, each man trying to warm up to the other as they desperately cling to their cushy white-collar meal tickets.

If only the rest of the movie could live up to their wonderfully queasy rapport. After a nicely understated opening sequence showing Dan preparing for yet another business trip, the film’s plot slowly falls victim to the kinds of clichés that plague very special episodes of Seventh Heaven, or maybe Eight Simple Rules. Dan has to swallow his pride at work, kowtow to Carter, and express an unusual amount of public rage at the fact that his beloved college-age daughter Alex (Scarlett Johannsen) is doing the nasty with his new boss. Will good ol’ company know-how win out over technology and 21st century flashiness? Will Dan save face? Will there be a Big Defiant Speech at the end? Let’s just say you could set your watch to it.

After pulling off About a Boy’s risky balancing act of humor and melancholy, Weitz seems determined to prove with this film that he’s no longer the same man who previously filmed a teenager guzzling a glass of semen in American Pie. As such, he has directed In Good Company in a low-key, low-impact, minor-chord style, deflating some of the script’s broader laughs, filling the sound track with mopey acoustic contributions from Steven Trask, the Shins and Iron & Wine, and letting scenes linger long after they’ve made their point. It’s like a sitcom on downers.

The cast keeps the proceedings watchable, at least to a point. Exclaiming that he’ll be a corporate “ninja assassin” and raving about spicy tuna rolls, Grace’s baby-faced, passive-aggressive Carter is a pleasant change from the brash, cocky yuppie we’re accustomed to seeing in movies like this. But Weitz can’t seem to decide if Carter is a true visionary or just a hapless pawn in the system. Quaid’s baby-boomer character is similarly problematic: When he sends Alex off to NYU, he shudders at the sight of a poster of a marijuana leaf, but a couple of scenes later, he’s chilling out to Steely Dan. Just how old is this guy? For whatever reason, Weitz seems to want to return to the days when a good handshake was all you needed to get by, a wife’s place was in the kitchen, and good girls waited till marriage. As a result, he’s made the ultimate red-state movie.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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