“Sometimes you have to trick the scale to get the right weight,” says Básculas Blanco (Javier Bardem) in The Good Boss. Blanco runs a slick operation that produces classically-styled scales for the masses. The goods he makes are, of course, anachronistic in the age of digital conveniences. Kitchen scales measure flour of a hundredth per gram, while cheap bathroom scales these days afford dieters a few cheat days as they shift their feet to tip the scales. The old-school analogue scales that Blanco produces, though, are like those favoured by Justice. They are symbols of neutrality and equality. They’re also products of another era, much like Blanco himself.
The ironically titled The Good Boss features Javier Bardem in a powerhouse performance as a breed of beast on its way out. Blanco is a win-at-all costs businessman who can do anything knowing the scales are rigged in his favour. Watching him squirm and precariously try to restore balance to his world order, though, The Good Boss offers a timely workplace satire. This film is the widening rich/poor gap in a nutshell.
Blanco becomes especially overzealous on the factory room floor as he eagerly awaits an appraisal. A local committee is making the rounds evaluating companies and bestowing an award of merit upon one business. Blanco thinks the scales will weigh in his favour. On paper, too, they should. He runs a mostly shipshape operation on the surface. However, look closer, or simply observe the buffoonery of the man behind the wheel, and the entire operation seems primed to fly off the rails. It teeters ever closer to the edge as Blanco impatiently awaits the committee and the honour to which he feels entitled.
The Weight of Gold
The Good Boss follows something of a typical screwball formula. There’s an old rule that comedy ensues as more people enter the story. That’s somewhat true here, as Blanco’s problems amount to an escalating clown car of headaches, blunders, and gaffes. For example, he fires one employee, José (Óscar de la Fuente) who doesn’t take the axing well. José parades his kids around the factory and sets up a protest camp on the public land opposite the factory. He shouts obscenities at Blanco, waves flags, and exploits his children for guilt and sympathy. It’s cringe-worthy and immature behaviour, but Blanco’s reaction is much worse.
The good boss smiles and reassures his employees that they’re all family. He’s less a shepherd to a flock and more a wolf in sheep’s clothing. All he values is his bottom line. People, eventually, become disposable figures on a balance sheet. A friend slips in performance when he suspects his wife of having an affair. Blanco’s longest-serving employee has family trouble, etc, etc. Every encounter that Blanco has with his employees betrays his self-serving ruthlessness. This man knows how to get ahead.
Blanco’s insatiable lust takes a predictable turn when the sexy intern, Liliana (Almudena Amor), accepts his advances. However, their affair brings one of The Good Boss’s sillier turns even though Bardem and Amor have some of the best chemistry of the ensemble. The plot twist that spills out of their tryst might muddle the moral fable for viewers: Blanco is flawed, but arguably not as stupid as this turn makes him seem. Others, however, might simply feel he’s as blind at home as he is at work. However, the film arguably veers from droll to convoluted when the affair packs one clown too many along for the ride.
A Modern Day Gekko
Bardem relishes the chance to be funny, but also to play against type. His Blanco personifies charisma, yet his a product of the assholification of corporate culture. He’s Gordon Gekko with a slicker haircut and a twinkle in his eye. The man oozes entitlement, and there’s great pleasure to be had in watching Bardem talk down to his employees while carrying himself with the utmost dignity. Not a hair falls out of place in this performance. He’s quite funny by playing it straight.
Writer/director Férnando de León Aranoa (Loving Pablo) doesn’t go for big laughs or great surprises here. The Good Boss invites a droll chuckle with a mostly even-handed eye for a world perverted by greedy intentions, told in straightforward, no-frills, neutral-toned filmmaking.
But there’s a great moment when Blanco notices some scales outside the factory off balance. As he steps closer and sticks his hand in the plate, he learns it’s full of shit. No matter how furiously Bardem scrubs his hands or how ferociously he commands the foul stench of Blanco’s sins to be washed away, the smell just never comes off. It’s a wonderfully olfactory feat. One can rarely compliment a film by saying it stinks, but here we are.
The Good Boss opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on August 26.