Living inside the bubble of Woody Allen movies definitely skews your perspective. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion may be the worst movie Allen has directed, but it’s easy to forget that even his weakest efforts are better than a lot of the other crap that makes it into theatres. Movies like Company Man provide refreshing reminders that no matter how dire Allen’s directorial efforts might get, things could always be a lot worse.
The film’s co-writer, director and lead actor (I hesitate to use the word ‘star’) is Douglas McGrath, who, as I recounted in the Bullets Over Broadway review, is a social acquaintance of Allen (McGrath is married to Allen’s assistant). Let it not be said that Woody Allen is not a kind and generous friend. McGrath has been given small parts in five different Woody Allen movies, and now Woody Allen makes an appearance in a Douglas McGrath movie. I’m still not sure what, exactly, McGrath’s contributions to the classic Bullets Over Broadway really were, but based on Company Man, that Oscar nomination he shared with Woody is starting to look a little undeserved.
Company Man has a plot recycled from Bananas, and in his lead performance, McGrath does a limp impersonation of his wife’s boss. McGrath clearly admires Allen, but equally clearly, lacks his talent.
The movie is set in 1959, and involves a milquetoast grammar teacher named Alan Quimp (McGrath) who tries to excite his wife and impress his father-in-law by telling them that he’s an undercover agent for the CIA. The real CIA comes to tell him to stop impersonating an agent, but then decides to just hire him. Then, in a series of increasingly improbable events, he gets sent to Cuba and ends up accidentally orchestrating the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Company Man relies mostly on screwball humor and jokes about grammar (seriously), but it also throws in a bit of political satire. The satire is toothless to begin with, but the fact that its targets are 40-year-old events makes it that much lamer. Company Man holds the daring, original conceit that the CIA’s attempts to oust Castro in the early ‘60s were poorly executed. It makes its points pretty gently though, perhaps fearing it might offend people for whom the Bay of Pigs invasion is a sacred topic. Despite having a level of insight, courage and topicality that would be surpassed by most Jay Leno monologues, Company Man thinks it’s being very clever indeed.
Company Man has a lot in common with The Impostors — both are redundant, unwanted tributes to bygone eras. The Impostors was at least pleasant, though, whereas Company Man is smug and grating. The Impostors was a movie that wanted to entertain, while Company Man is a movie that wants you to know how clever and funny Douglas McGrath is.
In casting himself in the lead role, McGrath has egregiously overestimated his appeal and committed an act of enormous arrogance. The fact that he’s not funny is only part of what’s wrong with his performance. If his shrill mugging had been in another movie, for another director, it would have been merely embarrassing, but the knowledge that McGrath cast himself as the movie’s hero, is directing himself, and was presumably pleased with the way he handled things adds a level of insufferable smugness.
McGrath treats himself to a full buffet of indulgence. He gives himself a number of broad comic set-pieces and opportunities to be ever-so-silly. He gets a musical number (in which he performs a cringe-inducing rockabilly re-do of “Old McDonald” that he wrote himself), he gets to be an action hero, and he even gives himself a good-old-fashioned LSD freakout scene. Company Man often feels less like a movie than a make-a-wish request from McGrath... like he was diagnosed with a terminal illness and his dying wish was to star in a Hollywood movie with real actors and cameras and sets, and everyone rallied together to make it happen.
McGrath can’t claim that he took the lead role of necessity. The movie is as star-studded as any of Allen’s recent films, with a cast that includes such capable, professional actors as Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Denis Leary, Ryan Phillippe, Alan Cumming, Anthony LaPaglia, and Woody Allen. For McGrath to give himself the lead and put these actors in supporting roles is an insult to the craft of acting.
Of course, with a different lead actor, the film would still have been bad. Almost every line is a joke, and none of them are funny. There’s a plodding obviousness to the punchlines. The movie introduces poison cigars, LSD, shampoo that makes hair fall out, and a pen with poison ink — and one by one we wait for the “hilarious” pay-off in which the wrong person (usually McGrath) accidentally uses it at the wrong time.
The movie’s talented cast is wholly wasted. Everyone — especially poor John Turturro — is forced into a constant manic overdrive. It’s as if they’re trying to drown out the badness of the jokes with pure volume, and the result is exhausting. Denis Leary fares the best, simply by displaying visible contempt for the material. He’s the only one who seems to realize how bad the movie is.
There’s also a running “joke” in which McGrath’s character corrects people on their grammar that’s extremely irritating, but I digress. As with The Sunshine Boys, I find myself bursting with the urge to rant about all the different ways that the movie isn’t funny. But what’s the point? Does anyone really care about how, exactly, a forgotten movie from 2001 failed to be funny? I doubt anyone is sitting around trying to decide whether or not to watch Company Man tonight.
I’ll just get to the part you’re most likely to be interested in: Woody Allen. He plays the CIA’s director of operations in Cuba. He wears a beret and speaks French to the locals because he thinks Cuba is a French colony. That’s sort of funny, I guess. Less funny is the scene in which he tells Quimp all about how there’s never going to be a revolution in Cuba, while in the background, there is clearly a revolution in Cuba going on. He also plays the saxophone in the above-referenced musical number. His role as a sentient sperm in Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex was more dignified.
Woody Allen is uncredited, although he has a fairly sizable role. He probably has more screentime than Alan Cumming or Anthony LaPaglia, whose faces are on the poster. Performance-wise, he’s just what you’d expect. Allen didn’t seem to get the “overdo everything” memo McGrath sent to the rest of the cast (or maybe McGrath admired him enough to not try to direct him), but he’s too good of a sport to go the Denis Leary route, either. He’s the most grounded performer in the movie which makes him a welcome, soothing presence.
As of now, Company Man marks the last time Woody Allen acted in a movie that was not his own. This chapter of Allen’s career has yielded a bizarre and puzzling filmography. It includes two blockbusters (Casino Royale, Antz), one wannabe blockbuster (The Front), and six other movies that, thanks to a combination of strangeness and badness, have been ignored and forgotten. Casino Royale showed a lot of potential for Allen as an actor-for-hire (he was the funniest and best part of the movie), but he never seriously pursued that career path. Maybe we should be thankful — if he’d spent more time on his acting career, he would have spent less time making his own, superior films. Of all his acting-only movies, my favorite would probably be either Antz or The Front, although I don’t anticipate watching any of them again.
Allen has said that he takes every acting job he’s offered, although I wonder about the sincerity of that assertion. It’s hard to believe more people wouldn’t want Woody Allen in their movies — his range isn’t the widest, but he’s certainly capable. He is, at the very least, a recognizable name to put on a poster. But, then again, I look at movies like Company Man, and it’s clear that this not a man who says ‘no,’ even when he should.
- Many of the plots against Castro depicted in this movie — trying to make his hair fall out, trying to dicredit him by making him take LSD in the middle of an address, giving him poisoned cigars, etc — actually happened.
- Company Man was made in 2000, but not released until 2001. Some reviews mentioned that its release was held up by “a lawsuit” but I’m not sure who was suing whom.
- This movie grossed a total of $90,899 in his first two weeks, playing in 104 theatres. By my math, assuming four showings per day, there were about two people in attendance at each screening of Company Man. It is, needless to say, the biggest bomb that Allen has had anything to do with.
- Douglas McGrath has directed four other movies — Emma (1996), Nicholas Nickeby (2002), Infamous (2006), and I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011). I haven’t seen the movies themselves, but reviews suggest they’re far better than this. McGrath does not act in any of them.
- Allen and McGrath are clearly still friends. McGrath interviewed Woody Allen for Interview magazine in 2008, and just a few months ago, interviewed Allen, Elaine May and Ethan Coen for Vanity Fair (the three co-wrote the play Relatively Speaking, as I’ve mentioned previously).
- Now that we’re talking about Woody Allen’s acting choices, here’s an interesting article on things that may have been: The Lost Roles of Woody Allen.