In Good Company, a third successive crowdpleaser from writer-director Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy), centres on Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid), a fiftysomething ad sales executive at Sports America magazine. Dan's been undergoing some changes recently. His wife Ann (Marg Helgenberger) has just announced she's expecting the couple's third child. Eldest daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson), a budding writer, is moving out to New York University. And, one morning, Dan walks into the office to find the magazine has been taken over by a major conglomerate; by lunchtime, he's working for a new boss, a nervy upstart named Carter (Topher Grace), who makes Dan his "wingman" and promptly falls for Alex.
It's in some ways a flat-out apologia for corporate practice - the sort of film it must be very easy for latter-day Hollywood suits to greenlight - but tempered by Dan's growing insistence on the human touch and a return to doing the right thing. Encoded somewhere in Weitz's superior screenplay is a paean to keeping matters insular (indeed, in the family), which means the film will probably find its biggest audience in the heartlands of Dubya's America; its original title, oft-dropped in the script, was Synergy, the sound of which is practically guaranteed to have anyone not protected by a white collar coming out in a rash.
And yet In Good Company still qualifies as the most purely enjoyable new film of 2005 so far. A lot of that can be attributed to the performers: the best ensemble assembled in some while, topped by the most likable of double-acts in Quaid and Grace. The latter skilfully permeates Carter's shellacked Young Republican veneer with cracks and insecurities enough to let us see both the hollowness of his lifestyle choices and the mixed-up soul skulking behind them. And Quaid, on something of a run after standout work in Far From Heaven and The Rookie, continues to get better with age, projecting integrity without blandness.
Further down the cast list, Johansson is momentarily liberated from older guy's fantasies (Lost in Translation, Girl with a Pearl Earring) and confirmed as one of the most vital screen presences of our age. Her scenes with pa Quaid are a lesson in how to avoid the creepy Nabokovian experiences undergone by Katie Holmes and Michael Keaton in last week's First Daughter; it helps that someone's bothered to work out an age gap. There's fine supporting work, too: David Paymer was surely born to play a character named Morty Wexler; Selma Blair does something terrifically amusing and sympathetic with her two-scene bit as Carter's ex-wife; and even Weitz's Chuck & Buck director Miguel Arteta gets a cameo as a maintenance technician.
Rather than the snappy, subversive The Apartment or the glossy, disingenuous Jerry Maguire - two obvious templates - In Good Company may finally be to the Noughties what a Baby Boom or The Secret of My Success was to the 1980s: a carefully scripted, well-played film which just so happens to capture the spirit of its time. If the head is telling you America really doesn't need another advert for big business right now, the heart should at least be warmed by the knowledge big business doesn't deserve an advert this funny, touching and accomplished.
In Good Company screens on Channel 4 tonight at 2.30am.