dir. Peter Askin and Douglas McGrath
Opens Fri March 9 at Meridian 16, the Metro.
Last week, Time magazine's cover featured the cartoonish visage of FBI spy Robert Hanssen, a real-life Joker whose girlish mouth looked lipsticked and revealed incisors sharp enough for any Dracula. The cover story reported the recently unearthed mole had once dreamed of himself as Flash Gordon's all-powerful emperor Ming the Merciless. Married to Bonnie, "a cute, pixie, Doris Day-like person," the devout family man was dubbed Dr. Death by his colleagues because he liked to wear black and avoided "occasions [for] sin." So, do all current events now star popcult mutations? To sort out such media-made madness, we need Hitchcock cloned, or perhaps Billy Wilder in his acid prime.
Peter Askin and Douglas McGrath, co-writers/directors of Company Man, will never sing in that exalted choir. But their old-fashioned send-up of Cold War politics and CIA spying could easily house Time's mole-who-would-be-Ming. It's 1959--"perhaps the last best time to be a white American male"--but milquetoast Alan Quimp, tweedy grammar instructor with a sideline in driver's ed, must fend off his ball-breaking wife Daisy (Sigourney Weaver) and her tycoon dad by pretending he's a deep-cover CIA agent. Through a series of inexcusably silly accidents, Quimp becomes an actual secret agent in Cuba, moments before Castro takes over.
Director McGrath plays Quimp as one of those blissfully solipsistic fools who squeezes everything through one frame of reference--here, proper grammar! Not surprising that McGrath's nebbish recalls Bananas' Fielding Mellish, Woody Allen's innocent abroad in an imaginary banana republic. McGrath co-wrote Bullets Over Broadway with Allen, and the Wood-man cameos (uncredited) in Company Man as a clueless CIA operative demoted from Paris to backwater Cuba. His primary kvetch: Everything he orders, from Camembert to Château Lafitte, comes infested with black beans.
Let me be perfectly clear: Company Man isn't good moviemaking. In distribution limbo since 1999, it's not a movie at all, but rather a loosely connected string of unevenly funny two-handers and slapstick blackouts (McGrath started as a Saturday Night Live writer). Sight gags, one-liners, and deliciously reprehensible caricatures abound. Either you're willing to get with the program--nonstop zaniness that swoops from sublime to dreadful to even more dreadful and back again--or you'll write the whole mess off as beneath your intellectual/ cinematic dignity. Your call.
If you're still in the house, you'll chortle, even guffaw, at the stellar cast's way-over-the-top performances fueled by weed, speed, or just plain thespian glee: Paul Guilfoyle as Quimp's CIA handler, Jeffrey Jones as the senator heading up hearings on the El Quimper-caused Bay of Pigs fiasco, Anthony LaPaglia (Castro), Alan Cumming (Batista), and Denis Leary (a double agent).
As mad-dog CIA zealot Crocker Johnson, John Turturro crashes into the movie like an id-projection from Apocalypse Now, threatening to do himself increasingly grotesque forms of physical harm ("I'll push this broken pencil into my ear...") should anyone doubt his devotion to the American eagle. Manically chest-butting every potential macho soul mate, he keeps dreaming up absurd ways to assassinate Castro--many of which the real CIA considered or tried. Few contemporary actors can keep up with Turturro's wild-eyed descents into darkside or infantile dementia--and in Company Man, he's restrained not at all.
Unless she's playing some kind of superwoman, Sigourney Weaver often can't be contained by the movie screen, so oversized is her persona. In Company Man, swathed in a scary pink-quilted bathrobe, her devouring wife verges on '50s sci-fi monster, Donna Reed or Doris Day gone amazingly, colossally bad. ("I thought life would be better if you, I don't know, died," Daisy sweetly confides to her spouse.)
Company Man sucks in so many ways. Still, sitting in the forgiving dark, I laughed a lot. Lacking pretensions, this jeu d'esprit conveys an astonishingly innocent (if also undirected) sense of fun. Because the movie's makers are so savvy about the period they're spoofing, and because the cast is clearly having such a damned good time, its sins scarcely merit Biblical outrage. When assembly-line comedy machines--fueled by excremental visions--rule, a sweet-natured, occasionally even smart shambles like Company Man delivers guilty pleasures.