Grace Notes 

Watch Topher Grace become the next Tom Hanks in the satisfying In Good Company.

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In his all-too-brief cameo as himself in Ocean’s Twelve, Topher Grace tosses off a line about his distracted emotional state, claiming that he “totally phoned in that Dennis Quaid movie.” It’s ironic enough that this line comes in a movie as totally phoned in as Ocean’s Twelve. It’s doubly ironic that Grace’s performance in “that Dennis Quaid movie”—In Good Company—may be the final piece of evidence that this guy is the next Tom Hanks.

Just think about it for a moment. Like Hanks, Grace got his big break as the lead on a high-concept sitcom (That ’70s Show to Hanks’ Bosom Buddies). His good-natured Everyman quality made it easy for him to slide into amiable film comedies as a romantic lead (Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!:Splash), but he’s also shown the versatility to do serious drama (Traffic:Philadelphia), though at a much earlier point in his filmography. If Grace plays his cards—and his career—right, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be a superstar.

In Good Company finds Grace mixing comedic and dramatic chops in a smart, satisfying story from writer/director Paul Weitz (About a Boy). He plays Carter Duryea, an ambitious sales and marketing hotshot at multinational giant Globecom. After catching the eye of his boss for successfully pitching dinosaur cell phones to kids, Carter gets his big break when Globecom acquires a high-profile sports magazine and installs Carter as head of sales.

This doesn’t exactly come as happy news for the previous head of sales, Dan Foreman (Quaid). A longtime company man with oldest daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson) in college and a new baby on the way, Dan suddenly finds himself working beneath a kid half his age. And he’s not likely to be made happier if he discovers that Carter has started dating Alex.

If you’d told me three years ago that one of the guys who made American Pie would become contemporary American cinema’s key voice of men coming to terms with adulthood, I’d have laughed in your face hard enough to rupture my spleen. But damned if Weitz hasn’t figured out how to wrestle something human and funny out of the way guys struggle with their identities as breadwinners, as fathers, as sons. In Good Company isn’t exactly subtle about the direction in which it’s heading—Dan hopes the impending arrival will be the son he never had, while Carter’s workaholism seems connected to the father he never had. That doesn’t mean a clever filmmaker can’t make it work with a solid collection of punch lines, and a knack for making potentially irritating characters ingratiating.

Weitz has also grown confident enough as a director to allow great little bits of business to exist in the background without being underlined, like the “Globecom Sucks” poster adorning Alex’s dorm room wall. Though he falls back into cliched rhythms at times—if you’ve seen the “wandering the streets pensively” montage in In Good Company once, you’ve seen it pretty much your whole moviegoing life—they don’t occur nearly enough to push aside the good stuff.

Mostly, however, Weitz was smart enough to cast Topher Grace in his lead role. Carter’s a mile-a-minute dervish driven by insecurity, and Grace knows how to make his eagerness to please—while still trying to present an image of leadership—appealing. He also has one of those abilities that seems impossible to teach, which is the knack for understanding precisely how long to hold every syllable for maximum comedic effect. Grace is, quite simply, one of the most naturally talented, purely likeable comic actors to come along in years—which makes it almost unfair that he also handles serious moments so well.

It’s in the latter respect that he blows co-star Quaid out of the water; while endearing enough when he’s easy-going, Quaid tends to resort to speaking with a squinched-up mouth when he’s trying to play it straight. Still, he and Grace demonstrate a smooth chemistry, enough to make it possible to stomach the intrusion of broadly silly bad guys and anti-corporate sermonizing. Weitz may try to cover too much ground with In Good Company, but it’s easier when he can hand the ball to Grace to tear up chunks of yardage. Watch your back, Tom. There’s a new “new Jimmy Stewart” in town.

IN GOOD COMPANY *** Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson, Rated PG-13

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