You know he’s read all the best management books. He probably subscribes to the Harvard Business Review. And he has all the team-building buzzwords down: especially about how his employees are his “family.” But giving your management of your company such a personal touch can backfire spectacularly. That’s foreshadowed early on in Fernando León de Aranoa’s slight, but never boring satire of capitalism — a movie that isn’t quite sure what it’s saying, even as it mesmerizes you with Javier Bardem’s performance.
Bardem’s Julio Blanco owns a factory that makes scales. He inherited it from his father. And in an all-staff town hall that opens the movie, he talks about how he sees his employees as his “children.” Then he goes on to say that, of course among one’s children there will be favorites. Not to mention, sometimes you have to make “difficult decisions for the good of the family.”
And, my, do Blanco’s “children” have problems. There’s Miralles (Manolo Solo), whose disintegrating marriage leads to him being distracted on the job and screwing up key shipments that’ll cost the company money. Jose (Óscar de la Fuente), who’s just been laid off and has set up a camp in front of the factory to protest. Blanco’s handyman Fortuna (Celso Bugallo), whose son is a hooligan known to beat up immigrants. And there’s Liliana (Almudena Amor), the new marketing intern Blanco immediately takes more than a shine to because she’s beautiful — or in Blanco’s words, “tall.”
Bardem is a hulking presence throughout “The Good Boss,” someone who looms over his company as much as manages it. His Blanco thinks that he’s charm personified, someone who can solve all his employees’ problems through the force of his charisma: for poor Miralles, he thinks taking him to a brothel is the way to get him to forget about his wife. But none of his meddling is really designed to help his employees. It’s about making company problems disappear — just like how most corporate human resources are there to protect the company more than improve employee quality of life.
Bardem’s Blanco wants to soothe his employees with his velvet purr of a voice, the sonic equivalent of a cup of cocoa and a seat by the fire. It’s the same voice his Silva uses when telling the story of rats eating each other to a tied-up James Bond. After all, a cat’s purr is both the sound of contentment and a warning of coiled, predatory menace, and what Blanco really wants is submission, even if he has to pounce. The way Bardem routinely looks over his glasses with professorial fastidiousness… he’s looking down on his employees at all times, as much as he wants them to think he’s on their level.
León de Aranoa has delivered biting economic critiques in his films before. The filmmaker, tied with Almodóvar as the most frequently honored Best Director at Spain’s Goya Awards, won that prize again — along with Best Picture and Best Actor for Bardem, among other awards — for “The Good Boss” at the ceremony in February. (The last time he’d won the Best Director Goya, it was for 2002’s “Mondays in the Sun,” in which Bardem played a laid off shipyard worker.) He trusts his actor to drive home the meaning of the film: that we’re all complicit in capitalism’s inequities for simply participating in it at all.
In longer takes than you’d find in a contemporary American film, he lets Bardem own the screen as the scale-factory owner, until you’re besotted by his power and presence too. You may even find yourself rooting for him; León de Aranoa implicates you, as well. That critique is what separates “The Good Boss” from something like that hegemonic lodestone of American workplace comedies, “The Office,” for which a generation of viewers came to accept that office “families” are as good as the real thing, their identities interlocked with their labor.
But León de Aranoa is so adamant about not underlining his themes, about not forcing his audience to think a certain way about Bardem’s Blanco that you might end up liking him a bit too much. A plot twist about an hour in, though compelling from a storytelling perspective, will make viewers identify with Blanco’s panic more than the consequences of his actions, and what the fallout will be for those affected. Only in a devastating final shot of squirm-inducing length does the director seem to, ahem, tip the scales.
For a movie about control, in which Bardem’s character demonstrates such a strong, manipulative hand, León de Aranoa might have exerted a bit more of his own. Blanco himself? He’d never let you draw your own conclusions to this degree.
Cohen Media Group releases “The Good Boss” in theaters on Thursday, August 25.