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Business becomes a pleasure

What kind of name is "Topher," anyway? Judging from a surprisingly mature performance coming from nowhere (or That 70's Show, whichever is farther away), it's a name to be remembered, even sought out, as Topher Grace grows into movie stardom. This kid will stay in pictures for a long time.

For the record, Topher is an abbreviation of Grace's given name, Christopher; he tired of being called Chris. The 26-year-old actor does something similar with a breakout role in Paul Weitz's melodram-edy In Good Company: He takes something ordinary and does unexpected things with it. Nothing flashy, just a series of cagey, unassuming acting moves that performers twice his age and experience might not achieve. A star isn't quite born yet, but he's crowning.

Grace plays Carter Duryea, a corporate lion cub being groomed for bigger things. The next rung up the ladder is supervising advertising sales for a popular sports magazine that has recently been absorbed by a conglomerate. The job used to belong to middle-aged Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid), whose soft-sell approach works, but not well enough in an era of synergetic cross-promotion. Dan has his pride, an unexpectedly pregnant wife (Marg Helgenberger) and a daughter named Alex (Scarlett Johansson), who is leaving the nest for an expensive college. He can't afford to tell Carter what to do with his former job.

Previews reveal that Carter and Alex will complicate the situation by dating, but In Good Company is more concerned with boardrooms than bedrooms. Carter and Dan are the two who'll eventually find common ground, even a degree of buddy-love.

Weitz, whose Oscar-nominated screenplay for About a Boy upended The Courtship of Eddie's Father cliches, does the same now for The Apartment and Working Girl, as big business and guilty pleasures collide. It isn't a completely honest endeavor; Carter's insecurities would show before any promotion, and Dan would be fired at first protest. Yet each time the story makes a false move, Grace (and Quaid, but we expect it) are there to make everything seem real.

In Good Company is a movie with severe mood swings, from serious concerns about ageism and ethics to goofy moments that don't suit the characters. Some segments positively snore. I can't say I love the movie, but I like the central performances. Especially Grace, who is able to remind viewers of young Tom Hanks with his sincerity and stammer. But his performance doesn't feel like mimicry; it's more like another lightning screen personality captured in a bottle. Carter is a puppy with sharp teeth, a loser with clout. Balancing those extremes is a difficult task Grace aces.

Quaid's duty may be tougher because we've seen elements of Dan _ concerned father, pressured employee, aging bull _ in so many films and sitcoms before. Weitz doesn't do the actor any favors by employing such familiar material as a home pregnancy test, interoffice basketball, and a thoroughly snide rival (Clark Gregg). However, Quaid's lopsided grin and furrowed brow occasionally lift the writing to a certain freshness. There may not be another actor right now who is growing so much better with age.

Johansson impresses again, ably capturing a tomboy maturing into womanhood. The way Weitz handles the relationship between Carter and Alex, especially a restaurant confrontation when Dan learns of their dating, is nearly flawless. Without a single showy moment, Johansson wraps Alex around our heads, informing us about who she is and where she's going.

The rest of the cast is stuck in standard operating procedure: Helgenberger will support and briefly suffer, David Paymer is the mild-mannered ad salesman losing his job, and Gregg just sneers. Matters are settled a bit too easily, or as Gregg's character says when he gets his comeuppance: "It's so arbitrary."

REVIEW

In Good Company

Grade: B-

Director: Paul Weitz

Cast: Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson, Marg Helgenberger, David Paymer, Clark Gregg, Malcolm McDowell, Philip Baker Hall

Screenplay: Paul Weitz

Rating: PG-13; profanity, sexual references, drug references

Running time: 109 min.

Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid, left) and Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) work through office politics as well as distractions in private life to become friends in the melodram-edy In Good Company.

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