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Who's the Boss

Quaid and Grace square off in the corporate world of "In Good Company."

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Movies involving corporations usually focus on a clash of cultures, and "In Good Company" is no exception. The character played by Topher Grace ("That '70s Show") is an emissary from the driven, purportedly soulless world on display in NBC's "The Apprentice" and its spawn. Like real-life Trump wannabes featured on such shows, Grace has no interests other than the achievements documented in his résumé. Having made his name by marketing action-figure cell phones to the crucial under-7 demographic, he indulges in boasts like "I'm a machine" or "I'm going to be your Ninja assassin." A whirling dervish with a quasi-mystical belief in globalization, he's trying very hard to hide the fact that he's an insecure dullard.

When his multinational corporation acquires the august Sports America weekly magazine, he's put in charge of its marketing department, displacing Quaid, a man nearly twice his age, who in a just world would be permitted to dispatch the upstart with the back of his hand. In Quaid, we're meant to see the embodiment of beleaguered American masculinity. He's got the virile doggedness of a hoe-wielding old-timer straining to save his homestead from the railroad men. His beautiful house in the suburbs is a nursery of virtue and strength. It's no surprise that when his daughter has a tennis date with Grace, she cleans his clock.

Although the sputtering romance between Johansson and Grace is played with a refreshing absence of overheated panting, it provides only an occasional diversion from the core of the film, the increasingly complex relationship between the young boss and his older, wiser subordinate. A lot of time is spent parodying contemporary corporate culture, but that aspect of the picture is no more substantial than the flimsy, painted flats of an operetta. Grace sounds ridiculous when he announces his intention to turn Sports America into a "portal to a synergized world of cross-promotion," but the real point is that he doesn't know how to be a man. What holds the movie together is the way Quaid, with an assist from Johansson, draws him out of the cocoon formed by his sterile, modernist house and plasma TV and into the real world.

As a result, the best and funniest moments involve Grace's first exposure to the workings of a fairly normal, if somewhat idealized, American family. When he steps across the threshold of Quaid's house, he wonderingly remarks, "This is a real home-type home," as if he'd just walked into a diorama at the Smithsonian. Everything is a revelation to him. When Quaid's wife (Marg Helgenberger) pulls dinner from the oven, his eyes widen. Weaned on sushi and nouvelle cuisine, he exclaims, "Baked ziti! This is what I need!" He's starving for a more substantial life, and he knows it, a fact that brings a measure of pathos to a role that could have been a bore to play and to watch.

Grace is relentlessly appealing in the part — perhaps a bit too appealing, since his awkward charm, suggestive of the early Tom Hanks, makes it tough to believe that he's shoved others aside in his corporate ascent. Johansson brings a touch of edgy mournfulness to the film, one of the reasons that its essentially sweet nature never becomes cloying. But in most respects the movie belongs to Dennis Quaid, who intersperses classic tough-guy shtick with endearing, humanizing touches. When he's hugging Johansson goodbye as she leaves for college, out of nowhere the mask of the beaming salesman and paterfamilias collapses into spasms of choked-back tears. It's a surprising moment, one of several that lift "In ***1/2 S

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