Javier Bardem excels as The Good Boss in a satirical farce of commercial ambition about a business owner who prides himself on being liked by his workers.
The Good Boss (El Buen Patrón), starring Javier Bardem as the eponymous protagonist, is a Spanish corporate satire about a seemingly charming factory owner whose mind is set on winning a prestigious prize for best company in the sector. However, he cannot resist meddling in the personal affairs of his employees – and while he is usually successful in establishing better terms with them, he begins to overstep the mark, to the detriment of his own image, and crucially, the company’s. The film comments on public image, the power dynamics between boss and employee, and on ego and vanity in successful business owners.
Javier Bardem has an unwavering charisma that makes him perfect for the role of Julio Blanco, the owner of a factory that manufactures large scales. He has inherited the company from his ancestors (though is keen to appear himself as competent as possible), and the factory seems to provide the bulk of the employment in the local small town. The product lends itself to lots of puns about maintaining ‘balance’ and ‘equilibrium’…
As the visit from the prize-awarding body approaches, we see how Blanco is especially keen to cultivate an image of community and a well-run, harmonious workplace – think of how your school teachers used to stress good behaviour only when the inspectors were visiting! As we learn more about his relationships with his workers, it becomes more and more apparent that this is just a façade.
Blanco has to contend with José (Óscar de la Fuente, The Candidate) a disgruntled former employee who has been fired. José is nearing 50 years old and is conscious of how difficult it will be to get hired by another company. However, he doesn’t better his prospects by spending all day standing opposite the factory gates protesting with placards and chants that don’t even rhyme – his personal animus seems to far outweigh his urgency to get back to work. His steadfast devotion to his cause is funny (it seems straight out of South Park) but equally tragic upon further consideration. Blanco has to come up with a way to calm him down, lest the award inspectors drive past and see the protest, surely destroying his chances of winning the prize.
I was actually reminded of Robert Altman’s ensemble-cast satires from the 1970s, such as MASH, Nashville and A Wedding, because of the way the film presents a seemingly well-oiled, community-based institution and slowly reveals the cracks that permeate it from the very top (though here the filmmaking is much more mainstream). Additionally, a shot of theatregoers sitting in the opera as Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights plays seems to evoke a similar image from Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, a film about a nightclub with a dodgy owner and dark underside that also unravels its plot conflict slowly.
Commentaries on the current workplace culture are not new, but The Good Boss has enough complex characters, funny lines and plot intrigue to justify its place. Complications arise when Blanco develops a crush on Liliana (Almudena Amor, The Grandmother), a precocious, driven intern, and does not resist following through with his feelings. A brilliant dinner-table scene with Blanco, his wife and Liliana is the perfect vehicle for Bardem to show off his comedic abilities, and he excels – it’s a brilliant scene powered by his hilarious facial expressions. The excellent actors create a believability to the relationship that elevates it above the average romantic subplot. When a dinner party guest reminds the room that Blanco has inherited the company, he is embarrassed – perhaps he is so intent on winning the prize because he is desperate to prove himself? It’s smart details like these that make the film more stimulating, because they inspire you to work things out yourself as opposed to spoon-feeding you every step of the way.
The film has been very well-received in Spain, and garnered a record-breaking 20 nominations at the Goya Awards – winning in six of those categories. On a cinematic level, The Good Boss is really nothing to write home about. The cinematography, editing and sound design are pretty conventional, but work fine. It is Bardem’s third collaboration with director Fernando León de Aranoa, after Mondays in the Sun [Los lunes al sol] (2002) and Escobar [Loving Pablo] (2017), the former of which was similarly submitted as Spain’s contender for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars over a contribution by Pedro Almodóvar.
At two hours, The Good Boss is perhaps a bit too long. I was never bored by the film, but I feel it could have benefited from a bit of streamlining. There is a lot going on, but maybe this is apt given the nature of being a business owner, especially one whose constant meddling in his employees’ personal affairs bring a never-ending string of complications. The dynamic between Blanco and Liliana was my favourite plotline, and I think the film should have built upon that more, but the film is still satisfying and competently ties up all of its loose ends – a difficult feat given the situations that Blanco’s messy, promiscuous and untrustworthy personality get him into. Recommended.