Creating a dark comedy is something like a high-wire act. Is the tone light or heavy? Does the audience laugh or gasp at the story’s surprises? And when the main character is also the villain, as in the new film The Good Boss, are we attracted or repulsed by him? When done well, the answer to all these questions is: both.
Fernando León de Aranoa, the writer and director behind The Good Boss (El Buen Patrón), manages to pull off the high-wire act, thanks in large part to a pitch-perfect central performance. Javier Bardem stars as Julio Blanco, the owner of a manufacturing company that produces industrial scales, and Bardem manages to create a character that is at once irresistibly charming and thoroughly repulsive.
A standout performance from Javier Bardem
The film, which won Spain’s highest film prize at the 2021 Goya Awards, is a tightly-plotted comedy of errors following Bardem’s Blanco through a particularly stressful week. The red flags begin immediately when Blanco gives a speech to his employees at a retirement party, repeatedly referring to them as “family” and harping on the importance of “loyalty.” We get a hint at the bad things to come when one of the women retiring from her position addresses Blanco a bit too intimately and then promptly leaves the room in tears. This situation is never explained further, but the implications are clear enough and the moment perfectly undercuts the air of toxic positivity that Blanco cultivates in his company.
Despite the warning bells, the film’s first act mostly paints a picture of a caring employer, willing to go out of his way to help his employees. Blanco is something of a Don Corleone figure, acting as an all-knowing fixer for the people around him and commanding respect and admiration— that is, until he finds himself under pressure and scrutiny. It’s the mixture of Blanco’s superficial kindness with his just-under-the-surface power-hungry menace that makes the character so very compelling.
A tonal high-wire filled with biting satire
Javier Bardem’s brilliant performance is enabled by an equally brilliant script. The plot manages to set up and maintain many interconnected threads— Blanco faces a disgruntled former employee turned tenacious protester, a beautiful and flirtatious new intern, and an incompetent and troubled Head of Production. Throughout, León de Aranoa’s writing finds ways to make each storyline feel fresh, surprising, and satisfying.
Related to the high-wire tone of the film, which is equal parts hilarious and distressing, is the script’s pointed satire. The protester character mentioned above, whose name is Jose (Óscar de la Fuente), is laid off at the beginning of the story and finds himself on the brink of financial ruin. As he protests outside the factory for the rest of the film, he raises many legitimate concerns about working conditions and abuses of power he experienced as an employee, and he manages to thoroughly get under his former boss’s skin. This is in part because the company, which is called Basculas Blanco (“Blanco Scales”), is up for a big award that Blanco desperately wants to win, and he is eager to suppress any bad PR.
Also biting is the commentary on power imbalances when it comes to sexuality. Early in the film, Blanco notices his new intern Liliana (Almudena Amor) from a distance and it’s clear he’s going to pursue her, despite her very young age and his own marriage to Adela (Sonia Almarcha). Though an affair like this may sound like a cinematic cliché, this particular storyline manages to surprise and to tread some interesting thematic ground.
A critically acclaimed crowd-pleaser
The current American theatrical environment, with its penchant for franchises and intellectual property, tends to favor movies based on known quantities, at least as far as box office numbers are concerned. Studios are hesitant to put distribution and marketing dollars behind anything too risky. At this point, The Good Boss is only getting a very small limited release in the U.S. after releasing in Spain last year.
In addition to winning Best Film at the 36th Annual Goya Awards, The Good Boss also took home trophies for Best Director, Best Lead Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Editing, plus nominations for virtually every actor in the film and a handful of other technical awards. Not only has the film garnered huge acclaim in its home country, but it’s also incredibly crowd-pleasing. I would even go so far as to call the film “easily accessible” if not for one aspect that Americans tend to hate in their movies: “the one-inch tall barrier” of subtitles, as Bong Joon Ho put it in his Oscar speech. This is particularly frustrating in the case of The Good Boss because, in a perfect world, a film like this could win the box office, but because of a combination of laziness and ethnocentrism on the part of American movie-goers, instead it’s a financial risk.
Film industry gripes aside, The Good Boss is a treat— the rare film that manages to be dramatically entertaining as it prods and pokes the audience and critiques societal power structures. Crucially, Julio Blanco is a figure that puts on a pleasant face to the world, and even thinks he’s doing the right thing, while being blinded to the ways he harms those around him. The film’s remarkable final moments play with this very idea, that Blanco is unable to reckon with his own misdeeds, in a shot that also deftly highlights his position in the world and his insatiable appetite for power. It’s quite a film, with incredibly capable writing matched by a performance that stands out even in a career as impressive Javier Bardem’s.
The Good Boss is now playing in limited release