Long ago, Javier Bardem told me he could never play a romantic hero. “Look at this face!,” he said in what was then halting English. “This is the face of a bad boy!” Of course, he was so wrong: Bardem’s face turned out to be almost infinitely adaptable. In Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s The Good Boss (El Buen Patron), which he owns top to bottom (appropriately, given he is the boss in question) he has the habitual smile of a benign uncle, albeit the uncle one suspects of having a secret porn stash in the basement.
Julio Blanco (Bardem) feels like a father to his workers, he says silkily at a Friday farewell drink for a group of said workers he is gently retrenching, nursing a glass of wine as he smiles upon them. “Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions for the good of the family.”
Javier Bardem & ‘The Good Boss’ Director Talk Well-Received Spanish Comedy; Actor Says He Hopes For ‘Dune’ Sequel – San Sebastian
Blanco inherited the company, which manufactures industrial scales, from his father. Miralles (Manolo Solo), the increasingly flailing head of production, was his childhood playmate when his own father worked for Blanco senior. Everyone is family and families are not just for working hours; one of the machinists comes around to clear out Blanco’s pool filter on Sunday morning, scraping away at the slime while the boss and his wife take breakfast on their terrace. Loyalty, that’s the ticket. In return, the employee asks if Blanco could exert his influence to free his thuggish son, recently arrested for beating up Arab lads in the park. “Can you talk to him, boss?” asks the grizzled old proletarian. “He respects you.”
It’s not a bad idea, really; Blanco is good at finding solutions. The racist delinquent is palmed off on to his wife, who has a clothing boutique, to tidy up her storeroom while he stays — temporarily, as it turns out, also thanks to Blanco — out of trouble.
It is considerably more difficult to know what to do about José, the sacked worker who has set up a camp outside the company gates and keeps blasting accusations through a bullhorn. The gates themselves are also an issue: the outsize working scales that sit on top of them, announcing Blancos Basculas as a bastion of balance and precision, are slightly skewed. They skew further still when José decides to use them as a potty. So much to worry about!
The Good Boss, which has been shortlisted as Spain’s entry for the International Feature Academy Award, plays out over a week. Monday turns into Tuesday. The ordering system is in chaos, meaning production has ground to a halt. This is the fault of Miralles, who has been running on empty since he decided his wife Aurora must be having an affair and started spending his nights spying on her stationary car. Blanco visits Aurora at work to try to browbeat her into being a better wife, which goes about as well as you’d expect.
Meanwhile, Blanco’s own aging head has been turned by Liliana, a willowy intern (Almudena Amor) with dreams and schemes of her own that Blanco twigs too late; can he bribe his loading bay operator, whose Facebook page shows he has quite a way with the ladies, to distract her? Mischief piles on mischief.
There are certain roles that demand bad wigs. This is one of them. The grey tea-cosy on Bardem’s head is having its own joke with the audience, which is very much the director’s kind of funny; many of the laughs build slowly in scenes where at least one person present has no idea what is going on and isn’t going to be told.
Peak dramatic irony is reached in an excruciating and exquisitely timed dinner party scene involving the Blancos, the lubricious intern and her parents, which is like a cat’s cradle of people talking at cross purposes. At the public screening at the San Sebastian Film Festival, where The Good Boss is in competition, the audience was so enthralled by one zinger there was a spontaneous cheer.
Bardem soars in these settings: soothing, dissembling and manipulative. As a modern Machiavelli with an MBA in management, he is riveting. He also sells us the best joke of all: that Blanco really believes he is a good boss, that he thinks he does care, that he does see himself as a paterfamilias to everyone involved in making his scales balance. But really, if you’d buy that idea, you’d buy anything. So do you fancy a set of scales? Condition used, as you can see — yes, nasty business — but they’re honestly only a bit wonky. And there’s a special deal for family, obviously.