We’ve all seen commercials, and we know how corporations and businesses promote not only their products but their image—stories that are basically about their own benevolence, with happy consumers served by happily dedicated workers making life better. And let’s face it, we all know it’s a pitch, a promotional angle, or if not we should know it, and yet we have been bombarded with it for so long that we don’t really question it. And so to break through that story with satire, with a sense of humor sharpened by awareness of the truth that is hidden behind the hype, is a rare thing to attempt in a film. But Spanish writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa has just pulled this off in his latest film, a clever dark comedy called The Good Boss.
Javier Bardem plays Julio Blanco, the owner of a company that manufactures industrial scales. He’s charming and charismatic, and supervises his company with a personal touch, often saying that he sees the employees as his family, and promising to take the time to listen to any problems they may have. Near the beginning of the movie he makes a speech to inspire the workers, informing them that an awards committee will soon visit the factory, and asking them to pull together to make a good impression so that they can win this prestigious award for excellence.
Bardem had me smiling and chuckling from the get-go. This guy Blanco is a smooth talker indeed, and a master of pleasant sounding B.S. On some level, of course, he believes his own story, and this is a big part of why Bardem is so funny here. As the film goes on, we see more and more how Blanco’s image as the good, caring boss is a calculated strategy for achieving his own ends.
There are obstacles in his way. A longtime employee who was recently fired comes in and makes a big fuss, accusing the company of betrayal and demanding his job back. After he’s escorted out of the building, he sets up a little camp across from the factory, on public land so he can’t be evicted, yelling slogans against Blanco all day, through a bullhorn. What if the awards committee sees this? Blanco has to find a way to make him leave. In addition to this, his director of operations is making lots of expensive mistakes, and the reason he gives is that he can’t focus on work because his wife, who also works at the company, is having an affair. The biggest obstacle of all, though, is really Blanco himself, who, while to all appearances happily married, has a roving eye for young attractive female employees. He’s gotten away with it so far, but a beautiful intern named Liliana, played by Almudena Amor, could spell trouble.
All of these plot threads (and there are more) weave themselves throughout the story to wryly amusing effect. Blanco uses his charm and friendliness, his aura as a good boss, to twist things around for his advantage. But everything starts to fall apart, and it’s hilarious to watch him desperately trying to navigate his way out of the mess he has ultimately caused.
Implied throughout the film is a sharp critique of the phony mindset, the relentless fake positivity of corporate self-presentation. The Good Boss is ultimately not a farce, but a very measured piece of work, even rather dramatic at times, because the issues at stake are quite real. De Aranoa’s writing and direction is very slick and accomplished, and everything fits together perfectly, but the reason it all works so well is Javier Bardem, in a part that showcases this actor’s tremendous talent.