“Synergy!” says Carter Duryea (Topher Grace). That’s the answer to his two most pressing questions: (1) What idea can he pull out of a hat to help him meet the very ambitious financial goals set for him in his new job, despite the fact that he knows nothing about it? and (2) How can he convince anyone — including himself — that he knows what he is doing?
Carter is 26 years old and his life fits him like a suit he hasn’t grown into yet. He has a sleekly elegant wife (Selma Blair), a sleekly elegant apartment with a lot of shiny new wedding presents, and, in honor of his new job, a sleekly elegant new sportcar, which he bashes as he drives it off the lot.
He works for a bunch of financial hotshots who play corporations like chess pieces. The latest acquisition is a publisher, and Carter is put in charge of the advertising sales division of a sports magazine (think Sports Illustrated). He’s taking over from Dan (Dennis Quaid), an old school type who has always put decency, loyalty, and integrity first. Well, that policy is quickly out the door, and so are some of Dan’s salesmen.
Dan would like to leave with them, but he can’t. He needs the job badly. His daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson) is switching to NYU from the less expensive state school. He has another daughter who will be going to college in a few years. And his wife Ann (Marg Helgenberger) is pregnant. His prospects for getting another job that would pay for all of that are poor at his age and in this market.
When they meet, as Carter is moving into what had been Dan’s office, the first thing they do is ask each other’s age. Carter points out that it is weird that Dan is older than his father, showing his panic, his cluelessness, and also his artlessness, candor, and openness. Carter is a smart kid, smart enough to figure out that Dan is more of what he wants to be than the slash-and-burn corporate titan he has been running after as though he was a rock star.
Carter thinks of himself as someone who can sell anything, but he can’t sell his wife on staying with him and he knows nothing about ad sales. Other than some B-school theories and the passion to do well, he does not have much to contribute.
Dan’s essential decency, combined with his sense of what is necessary for survival, leads him to reach out to Carter. And when Carter makes a shameless ploy to be invited over for dinner, Dan brings him home. Carter sees all that Dan has and for once he stops selling. He tells Alex that for some reason, she is the only one he feels he has to tell the truth to. And they begin a romance.
The script feels patched together and some of those patched-together pieces feel very stale — the corporate raider element of the plot is about 15 years out of date. There is nothing wrong with making the movie about the journeys taken by both Dan and Carter, but it doesn’t quite manage to do that; instead it seems to equivocate, itself not clear on who the movie is about. The seams show worst with the ending, which is particularly artificial. But there is a lot of compensation in exceptionally warm and fully-realized performances by all of the principals. Quaid makes Dan feel complete and lived-in, and, with Helgenberger, he makes his marriage feel real and lived-in as well. Grace is one of today’s most promising young actors, and he makes what could easily have been a shallow character into something special, showing us Carter’s strength, intelligence, and ability as well as his longing and insecurity. The relationships they put on the screen are far greater than what was on the page — now that’s synergy. These are people who are very good company indeed.
Parents should know that the film has some explicit sexual references and situations for a PG-13, though there is no nudity. Characters use strong language, drink, and smoke. Some viewers may be disturbed by the economic upheavals and lay-offs.
Families who see this movie should talk about some of their own experiences in the workplace with difficult supervisors or pressure to meet agressive financial goals. Some family members may want to learn a little bit more about the pressures that create opportunities for those, like Teddy K, to exploit employees and investors for their own benefit.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy About a Boy, by the same director, and The Rookie, with another of the many fine performances by Quaid.