The Good Boss Review: The Banality of Capitalism

In the end, Fernando León de Aranoa’s film suggests that there may not be a lot of daylight between a good boss and a true villain.

The Good Boss
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Twenty-first-century corporate culture tends to put a bright face on of the same old hierarchical scaffolding. The boss may give you a high-five these days, but in exchange he’ll expect even more dedication to your job, and he’ll continue wielding his power like a 19th-century baron of industry. Such is the basis of Fernando León de Aranoa’s The Good Boss, in which Javier Bardem creates a complex portrait of a randy, imperious, and casually corrupt CEO whose farcical absurdity can only approximate the realities of our second gilded age.

Bardem’s character, Julio Blanco, is the head of Basculas Blanco, a Spanish firm that manufactures scales. This line of business may seem relatively obscure, but Julio is clearly the king of his domain, with the mayor on speed dial and an endless rotation of young female interns to sexually exploit. Like a true king, Julio would prefer that his employees think of him as a benevolent father, as he emphasizes in a pompous speech at the beginning of the film.

Already, though, the contradictions between the shallow image of paternal care that Julio projects and the craven lifestyle of the rich and (locally) famous that he leads are already starting to snowball into a crisis that threatens the man’s carefully curated image. Jose (Óscar de la Fuente), a disgruntled ex-employee, barges onto the factory farm to contest his firing, and a group goodbye to the current set of interns threatens to turn embarrassing when one of the young women mouths “te amo” to Julio and runs off in tears.

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A committee that decides on an award for excellence in manufacturing is set to appear to inspect the factory at some soon but unspecified date—and just as Julio’s sins, both venal and cardinal, are beginning to interfere with the smooth operation of Basculas Blanco. Jose has set up camp in an empty lot near the entrance, making an ugly spectacle of his former boss’s callous attitude toward his “family.” Julio only adds to a chaotic situation when he intervenes in the life of Miralles (Manolo Solo), whose marital strife has been affecting his work as floor manager. Likewise when he uses his influence to get the racist, ruffian son of his elderly gardener and factory-floor worker Fortuna (Celso Bugallo) out of jail. And Liliana (Almudena Amor), Julio’s target among the next set of interns, turns out to be a bit more than he can handle.

While The Good Boss’s humor isn’t broad, Aranoa’s screenplay is certainly more interested in being droll than in being subtle. The very decision to make the main character a scale baron functions as an extended punchline; of course a man who’s always trying to put his thumb on the proverbial scale is in the business of manufacturing them. Aranoa plays with this idea in a couple of ways, with an ongoing subplot about Julio’s obsession with a model scale at the factory’s gates that has become uneven, and another involving an advertisement for the firm featuring the allegorical figure of justice whose toga has been redesigned as a short skirt.

This obviousness also works because the absurdity is the point. As we see in the cowed way employees like Fortuna look at Julio, it’s less that the abuses and hypocrisy of the monied class are hidden by their humane pronouncements, and more that their hollow words compel a shared performance among those who’d rather keep their jobs.

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That Julio is utterly solipsistic despite his communally minded speeches is signaled from the outset, but in demeanor he’s utterly bourgeois. “Balance is very important,” he reminds Mirelles over dinner, intoning the ruling-class ethos of maintaining the status quo at all costs with the solemnity of a sage. Bardem plays the character straight, emphasizing Julio’s pettiness and complacency. His isn’t a cartoon villain. And yet, perhaps because a fair amount of Bardem’s notoriety in the States has come from his memorable villains in films like No Country for Old Men and Skyfall, even Julio’s smaller trespasses against decency contain a hint of the truly dastardly. There’s real cruelty behind his scramble to take back control of his life, a ruthlessness that becomes more and more bare as the situation increasingly gets out of hand. In the end, Aranoa’s film suggests, there may not be a lot of daylight between a good boss and a true villain.

Score: 
 Cast: Javier Bardem, Manolo Solo, Almudena Amor, Óscar de la Fuente, Sonia Almarcha, Fernando Albizu, Tarik Rmili, Celso Bugallo  Director: Fernando León de Aranoa  Screenwriter: Fernando León de Aranoa  Distributor: Cohen Media Group  Running Time: 116 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2021  Buy: Video

Pat Brown

Pat Brown teaches Film Studies and American Studies in Germany. His writing on film and media has appeared in various scholarly journals and critical anthologies.

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