Dan Forman (Dennis Quaid) is a 51-year-old advertising executive for a sports magazine, whose company has just been bought out by the giant Globecom corporation. Forman is being replaced by 26-year-old Carter Dureya (Topher Grace), a young businessman who has mastered the buzzwords (“psyched!” awesome!” “synergy!”), but doesn’t have a clue as to how to run an ad department. Director/writer Paul Weitz is at pains throughout the movie to set up the contrast/parallelism between Dan and Carter. Dan is in love with his wife and two girls, with a surprise baby on the way; Carter’s wife of seven months is leaving him. Dan knows the ad industry inside and out—he’s all steak and no sizzle; Carter knows nothing about it—he’s all sizzle with no steak. Dan has to take out a second mortgage, but has solid relationships with his wife and kids; Carter has everything money can buy, but is desperately lonely.
Their lives soon become even more intertwined. Carter hires Dan to be his “wingman,” and also starts to secretly date Dan’s 18-year-old daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson). Although in one sense the film begins to feel like a romantic comedy, the true relationship being explored is that between Dan and Carter—in a form of a father-son relationship. We learn that Carter’s dad left him when he was a young boy, and that Dan is hoping his new baby will be a boy. In essence, Dan takes Carter under his wing and teaches him not only the lessons of business, but also the lessons of life.
The acting, for the most part, is top-notch. Quaid is now the classic Everyman—eminently believable as the always dependable, every-faithful father who rises early in the morning to head off to work. Quaid has the rare combination of both comedic timing and the ability to manifest gravitas. Topher Grace is nearly flawless in his portrayal of both a snarky upstart and a desperate lost young man. It wasn’t until after the film that I saw that he’s also the star of That [hideous] Seventies Show, which made the depth he brought to this role even more impressive. Scarlett Johannsson is a subtle, excellent actress—though it stretches credulity that she is heading into her freshman year of college.
In my opinion, the movie began to drag a bit as the business conflict came to a climax with the arrival of Globecom honcho Teddy K. (Malcolm McDowell), though the scene is necessary to move the plot along. The movie contains some hilarious lampooning of corporate business culture. (Those in the business world will probably especially appreciate the over-the-top character of Steckle—played by Clark Gregg, who turns in some hilarious moments.) At a couple of points my expectations of Hollywood liberalism made me think that one of the themes of the movie was a rather lame anti-capitalism critique. (The trailer to the movie splashes the words “It’s not about getting ahead . . . It’s about getting a life.”) I, of course, don’t know the intention of the director, but I think it’s ultimately the film recognizes that in order for capitalism to work, it must be built upon hard work, integrity, and honor—all qualities that Dan Forman has in spades.
In short, I liked this movie much better than I thought I would. The short TV teaser that I saw didn’t really make me want to see it. But it is funny, surprisingly thoughtful, family-affirming film that is one of the few movies that both men and women, older adults and younger adults, will equally enjoy.