With his hair dyed a solid gray and shaped into a perfect Trump-style blowout, Javier Bardem introduces a new character into his repertoire of charmingly evil men in the ironically titled The Good Boss (El Buen Patrón), his latest collaboration with Spanish director Fernando León de Aranoa (Loving Pablo).
Slickly entertaining, considering its rather weighty subject matter, this dark workplace dramedy stars the veteran actor as the boss of a family-run factory plagued by economic woes, employee foibles and the clashes brought on by Spain’s burgeoning multiculturalism. There’s lots on the menu, and León de Aranoa brings it all together in a smooth manner. But the jokes tend to be too broad, and the themes too tritely handled, to make this San Sebastian competition premiere a major player outside Europe and Spanish-speaking territories. The film was recently shortlisted as one of Spain’s international Oscar contenders, which may help boost local numbers.
The Good Boss
A slick and sinister workplace dramedy.
Bardem plays Blanco, another ironic name given that his character is anything but pristine. As the heir to his father’s medium-size business, Básculas Blanco, one of Spain’s leading manufacturers of professional-grade scales, Blanco rules over his staff with a seduce-and-destroy mentality, wheeling them in with his fatherly ways and then casting them off when they no longer serve his needs. His victims include the recently fired José (Óscar de la Fuente), who has decided to stage a one-man protest in front of the factory gates, as well as countless female interns who have clearly been hired for their looks — a fact the director harps on a little too eagerly.
Blanco is forever preaching a strong, moral work ethic to his employees — the words “Effort, Equilibrium, Loyalty” are painted in red on the warehouse walls like agitprop for the capitalist patriarchy — but he’s willing to stomp over anyone to remain a power player in the minor world of perfectly calibrated measuring devices. As things begin to unravel, especially after longtime production manager and childhood buddy Miralles (Manolo Solo) has a meltdown after his marriage falls apart, Blanco needs to figure out how to save his livelihood — not to mention his own marriage, which could be compromised by his conquest of a new intern, Liliana (Almudena Amor), who turns out to be the daughter of an old family friend.
With a style reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ trademark cinematic sarcasm, especially in their quirkier works like Burn After Reading, León de Aranoa artfully spins a story (which he also wrote) of bad behavior trying to pass itself off as good. The tone is upbeat, whereas what’s happening is anything but nice — unless you’re someone who considers the triumph of a ruthless rich guy like Blanco to be a positive thing. Indeed, one problem with The Good Boss is that, despite Bardem’s uncanny ability to make us enjoy extremely sinister characters (Anton Chigurh from the Coens’ No Country for Old Men being the best example to date), it’s hard to have any feelings for a conniving, philandering top executive with no real desire to change his ways.
The film begins with a gritty, altogether dark sequence, captured in handheld by cinematographer Pau Esteve Birba (Buried), of Spanish teenage thugs assaulting a group of Arab immigrants in a park. One of the perpetrators will return later in the movie to play a major role in its plot. Inside the factory, there’s major friction between Miralles and an immigrant worker, Khaled (Tarik Rmili), who’s vying for a promotion. León de Aranoa is clearly commenting on Spain’s shifting demographics and how men like Blanco will do whatever it takes to maintain their place in the hierarchy, but some of that commentary is lost in his various attempts at humor, including a cringeworthy running gag about Khaled being a bona fide ladies’ man.
The Good Boss also attempts to show how gender roles in Spain are changing, with Liliana, who first appears as a not-so-innocent victim falling into Blanco’s lecherous clutches, eventually using the affair to advance her career. But that theme also feels slightly misguided: Even if Liliana manages to outsmart Blanco in the end, she still has to sleep with the boss to get ahead, which doesn’t feel like much progress at all. There’s something underhandedly cynical about a movie that criticizes Blanco’s conduct while sanctioning it at the same time, and León de Aranoa constantly reminds us that the fragile balance of power at Básculas Blanco can be maintained only through manipulation and cruelty.
Frank Capra this ain’t, but The Good Boss nonetheless reveals the director’s vision of the state of things in Spain — a feeling he captured two decades ago in the more hopeful working-class dramedy Mondays in the Sun, starring a younger, not-yet-famous Bardem. As a filmmaker, León de Aranoa, who’s since made a foray into the mainstream with efforts like Loving Pablo and A Perfect Day, has mastered a certain polished narrative technique by now, but one wonders if he’s lost some of his heart. Or else he’s seeing the world all too clearly for what it is — in which case we may be doomed to serve under men like Blanco for quite some time. Perhaps the best we can do is laugh about it.