If there is one thing us humans have learned throughout the ages—well, since the Industrial Revolution, really—it is to be suspicious of those companies, regardless of size, who proclaim to treat their employees like a big, happy family. They pretend to be caring, supportive. They are anything but.
In fact, as The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker points out, the only thing a family and a company have in common is their dysfunctionality. And yet, do a quick Google search for “treating employees like family,” and you will find more articles from financial advisers, columnists, and entrepreneurs evangelizing about how companies will benefit by treating their employees as family members than those advising against it.
It’s an illusion that Julio Blanco, the patriarchal owner of a scales manufacturing company outside Madrid (played by Javier Bardem) in Fernando León de Aranoa’s sly, dark corporate comedy The Good Boss (El buen patrón), insists on perpetuating.
Yet, León de Aranoa opens his film not with one of Blanco’s many pep talks to his employees but with a brutal nocturnal attack on a small group of Muslim youth by Spanish hooligans in a park. The scene is shot handheld. It’s edgy, nervous, quick in its brutality—a sharp contrast to what follows: Blanco announcing to his employees, on the floor of their antiseptic manufacturing plant, that their company is one of three finalists for a regional business award. He even has a spot for the award on his wall back home, a spotlight falling over the empty space.
But it will precisely be family matters which threaten to derail his chances at winning that award. And that perturbing first scene will repeat itself, with a different target, later on.
Problem número uno that Blanco needs to solve: Salva, the son of his most loyal and veteran factory worker, was arrested by police for the attack on those Muslim men. A quick call to a contact in the police department and a “job” at his wife’s boutique seems to solve the problem. Besides, the kid will prove useful later on when Blanco needs a quick and dirty solution to a nagging problem which leads us to…
Problem número dos: On the day he announces the award, Blanco lays off several employees, one of which, José (Oscar de la Fuente), shows up on the factory floor with his two children demanding an answer and stages a one-man protest on public land right across the street from the factory, yelling unflattering (and badly rhyming) slogans through a megaphone. Concerned about what the awards committee will think, Blanco tries everything, from making an anonymous call to the police to calling the mayor, to get rid of him to no avail. José is that pesky fly that won’t leave you alone no matter how much you swat at it.
Problem número tres: Miralles (Manolo Soto), his long-time friend and right-hand man, has been missing deadlines and ordering the wrong parts, and, as a result, delaying shipments and trying the patience of his fellow employees, including Khaled (Tarik Rmili), the head of the company’s transportation department. The reason? Miralles suspects his wife of having an affair with another man, and that distraction is impacting his output. Blanco tries everything to calm Miralles down, from talking to his wife Victoria (who tells him Miralles had an affair with one of his employees) to taking him to a strip club and then a nightclub where they hang out with two of their new female interns.
Problem número cuatro: After dismissing an intern with whom he had an affair, Blanco sets his eyes on a new one, Liliana (Almudena Amor), who has also set her eyes on him from the beginning and has ambitions of her own. Nobody bothered to tell him that she is the only daughter of a good friend of his, making for a very awkward dinner with her parents after he beds her.
A man used to being in control, finding the right balance, and flaunting his privilege while playing the role of benevolent patriarch, Blanco is out of his depth when all these problems collide at once and spiral out of control. His belief that he can talk people out of their troubles, that he can get them to see things his way for the benefit of the company (i.e., himself), explodes in his face and even, in one moment, results in a violent slap that sends his glasses flying off his nose. And just when he thinks he has solved all his problems, Blanco is outsmarted.
The humor is incredibly understated, one that depends on moves and countermoves, on the simplest of human foibles… and on Bardem’s restrained performance as Blanco. He is more than the heart and soul of this movie—he carries it on his shoulders, the other characters orbiting around him like planets around the sun. He is confident and charming, benevolent, and, apparently, empathetic. But his eyes, more often than not, betray a snakelike, predatory quality. But as the shit hits the fan—and in one scene, stains his fingers—we can also see confusion, befuddlement, and even anger and frustration in those eyes.
This is Bardem’s third collaboration with León de Aranoa, after the superb Mondays in the Sun (2002) and Loving Pablo (2007), a critical bomb where Bardem played Pablo Escobar. While I still think their first collaboration, a poignant portrait of unemployed Spanish dockworkers, is their best, The Good Boss is an incredibly acerbic and entertaining addition to a long line of film comedies and dramas about corporate culture.
Featured image: Javier Bardem as Julio Blanco, the patriarchal owner of a scales manufacturing company outside Madrid, in Fernando León de Aranoa’s sly, dark corporate comedy ‘The Good Boss’/’El buen patrón’ (Reposado PC/The Mediapro Studio)