"Company Man"

There's nothing worse than a bad farce -- except for this Cuban missile crisis comedy that wastes talent like Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro and Alan Cumming.

Published March 9, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

There's no lonelier feeling at the movies than the feeling you get when a farce goes thud. At boring movies you can tune out, think about the rest of your day or what you'll have for dinner. But you can't tune out a farce that is working hard to amuse you. And so you sit there, as one joke after another crashes, feeling trapped, as if you'd wound up in the clutches of a hostess determined to keep offering you nothing you could possibly want.

"Company Man," which was written and directed by Peter Askin and Douglas McGrath (Woody Allen's co-writer on "Bullets Over Broadway" and the director of "Emma"), is only 81 minutes but it feels like a life sentence. The story is an alternate comic history in which we're given a heretofore-unknown explanation for historical events. In this case, the event is the Bay of Pigs and the CIA's ill-fated attempts on Castro's life that preceded it.

The movie's conceit is that the entire predicament was sparked by one Allen Quimp (McGrath), a prissy little milquetoast who ends up as a Company operative. Quimp is a grammar teacher at a Connecticut public school. His status-lusting wife, Daisy (Sigourney Weaver), realizes they're going nowhere fast and threatens to bring her rich daddy's wrath to bear on her husband. Quimp fobs the old man off with a lie that he's actually an undercover CIA agent. The CIA gets wind of it and, intending to punish him for impersonating an agent, winds up employing him.

On some basic level, farce has to be as believable as realist drama -- not realistic, but even a fanciful, stylized world has to feel like an actual place and the actors have to act as if they exist in that place. In farce, it's the writers and directors and actors who have to suspend their disbelief before the audience can suspend theirs.

But here, the actors caper around with their outsize eager-to-please manner through a production design (by Jane Musky) that meets the standards of community theater but not a movie. The actors wander through the sets with no connection to them, as if they'd just shown up for first run-through, and this sense of disconnect mirrors the flatness that's everywhere else you look: in the alternately sputtering and dead pace, in the antic and cheerless atmosphere, in the drab photography, a first for the great cinematographer Russell Boyd.

In "Company Man," Askin and McGrath make the fatal flaw from which no comedy can recover. They assume that since we all know comedy isn't "real," there's no reason to make it believable -- even on the level of farce. So they don't care that, from scene to scene, the movie looks cheap and phony and underpopulated. Was the budget so tight they couldn't afford extras? Couldn't they have even had crew members milling around in the background of shots?

Worse, the directors allow the performers to go about their business with a perpetual knowing wink to the audience, and no attempt to act as if their characters were in an actual situation. So the movie winds up being played in a manner more appropriate to sketch comedy (McGrath was at one time a staff writer on "Saturday Night Live"), but a sketch that refuses to end even though it isn't funny to begin with.

No doubt Askin and McGrath were at least partly inspired by Alec Guinness' performance in Carol Reed's film of Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana." In that film, Guinness plays a meek Havana vacuum cleaner salesman who gets embroiled in espionage. The tone is, of course, very different from "Company Man," but at times McGrath seems to be playing off the idea of an easily overlooked man setting off all manner of intelligence rumblings. The trouble is, there's nothing endearing about Quimp (rhymes, intentionally I'd guess, with wimp), the way there was about Guinness' character.

McGrath plays the character -- a square who corrects people on their grammar (a trait tied with correcting people on their pronunciation for most annoying trait of all time) and acts Rotary Club-cheery while he's doing it -- with far too much knowing commentary for him to ever have an aura of innocence. He's not a dear fool, he's a fool held in contempt by his creators. It's a lousy idea to put a character we can't care about at the center of a farce. But at least the conception of Quimp is consistent.

Like McGrath's performance, the entire movie is extraordinarily pleased with itself. It tosses off stale slams at the squareness and cluelessness of right-wing suburbia as if the pathetic gags were the equivalent of wit or political satire. There's got to be a comedy lurking somewhere in American intelligence's bumbling in Cuba during the early days of Castro's regime. But it would have to be a lot more daring, a lot wilder than this. In 2001, the political satire in "Company Man" has about as much relevance as listening to Mort Sahl tell Eisenhower jokes.

McGrath and Askin have surrounded themselves with a game cast, but the performers all have the lead weight of the script and direction tied to their feet. Watching them give it the old college try is especially painful. (If they were less committed actors they might hold back and try to salvage themselves.)

It's least painful watching Alan Cumming as overthrown Cuban leader Batista because Cumming's whole style of performance is as smug as the movie. (I think he's escaped that only once in his movie roles, as the nerd turned computer tycoon in "Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion.") Cumming lounges around with cocktails waxing nostalgic for his fellow dictators and working his wiles on Sigourney Weaver's Daisy. The elfin, wiry Cumming seems to have everything it takes to be a great comic eccentric except the manic spark. He's too self-conscious, too self-adoring.

John Turturro has some genuinely funny moments as a gung-ho renegade CIA agent, turning the hostility he shows in his dramatic roles to comic effect. But the role never develops beyond the joke of a gung-ho patriot. And Anthony LaPaglia is all primed for sly satire as Castro, but the material never arrives.

Probably the ultimate failure of "Company Man" is that it may be the first time Weaver hasn't been funny in comedy. And again, it's the lousy, flat material rather than anything she does. Like John Cleese or the late Peter Cook, Weaver is a performer whose physical stature adds to the natural looniness she brings to comedy. When she's really cooking (as in "Working Girl," her possessed scenes in "Ghostbusters," her cameo as a self-help guru in "Jeffrey" or the work she's done with playwright Christopher Durang) whorls of mania seem to sit over her head like those mini tornado symbols on a weatherman's map. Weaver can make you pop your eyes in disbelief at the same time as you're laughing yourself silly. No wonder "Company Man" is credited to two directors. Making her six feet of craziness seem foreshortened is too much work for one person.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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