Review: The Good Boss

Funny business.


The Spanish actor Javier Bardem has scored some of his biggest commercial successes playing psychos in movies like the Bond film Skyfall and the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men (for which he won an Oscar with his portrayal of the dead-eyed hitman Anton Chigurh).

But as the scion of a venerable Spanish theatrical family, Bardem has broader expressive resources to draw from as well, among them a winning touch with comedy, which he demonstrated as the love-struck pickup artist in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Now, in one of his subtlest performances, in one of his best films, he is wonderfully funny puncturing the low-hanging balloons of upper-class moral pretensions. The Good Boss isn't a belly-laugh comedy, but its humor is sharply on-target, and its story builds beautifully to a classically gratifying conclusion.

Scripted by its celebrated director, Fernando León de Aranoa, the picture is an assemblage of near-perfectly balanced comedic components. This in itself is rather clever, given that the story's protagonist, an elaborately patronizing industrialist named Blanco (Bardem), is the owner of a company that manufactures scales—machines used to weigh everything from cattle to pretty interns (who smile politely at this sort of old-guy gag).

As we join him on a big day at his bustling factory, we find Blanco pep-talking his employees in preparation for a visit by a group of government bureaucrats charged with bestowing an annual award for "Excellence" on deserving businesses. Blanco already has several such plaques crowding a wall of his living room at home, and as a casually corrupt collector of important official connections, he's assuming he'll soon be adding another one. He's a man who feels himself to be sitting pretty and has no idea how perilously shaky his perch really is.

As Blanco nervously awaits the award-givers' arrival—the precise timing of which is unknown—everything around him starts falling apart. A longtime employee named Jose (Óscar de la Fuente), whom he laid off in a measure of corporate streamlining, has mounted a noisy protest, accompanied by his two small, photogenic children, across the street from the factory gates, where he loudly berates Blanco through a bullhorn as a heartless boss. Blanco calls the police about this inconveniently timed situation—in the interest of the children, of course—but is told the man is protesting on public property: "It's as much his as yours," one cop says. "Ah," Blanco sighs, "a socialist police officer." (Despite its antipathy toward the upper crust, the movie isn't just an exercise in capitalist pot-shotting—among the now-jobless employee's complaints is the fact that "I have two homes to maintain.")

One of Blanco's managers, a friend from childhood named Miralles (Manolo Solo), is also causing trouble. Miralles' job performance has been seriously degraded by the shameless behavior of his wife (Mara Guil), who has been boffing the company's hunky Moroccan production chief (Tarik Rmili). Blanco, who loudly trumpets the notion that his employees are like his family, attempts to intercede in this domestic mess, but only makes things much worse. So does his string-pulling on behalf of another worker's delinquent son, which goes wildly wrong.

Although he doesn't know it yet, the most ominous threat to Blanco's existential equilibrium is his own marriage, to the slyly inscrutable Adela (Sonia Almarcha). Blanco has had no compunctions about cheating on Adela, but when his eye is drawn to a gazelle-like new intern named Liliana (Almudena Amor), he doesn't realize he'll soon be rafting down a river of no return. The unimprovably droll Bardem plays Blanco, with his self-aggrandizing charm and deeply internalized reserves of self-pity, as a perfect victim, richly deserving of whatever he gets. Especially the willowy Liliana, whose youthful amusement in the face of his weary geezer come-ons would be much more disconcerting if he realized what was actually happening. "This situation turns me on," she tells him.

(The Good Boss is in Spanish, with English subtitles.)