The Good Boss
Javier Bardem is magnetic in this Spanish award-winner, which savagely and smartly satirises power, privilege and workplace life.
April 14, 2022
Despite being nominated for Best Actor for Being the Ricardos, Javier Bardem had zero chance of nabbing a shiny trophy at the 2022 Oscars. The movie he deserves his next nod for instead: savagely sharp workplace satire The Good Boss, which is home to a tour-de-force of a performance from the Spanish actor. Already an Academy Award-recipient for his powerhouse effort in No Country for Old Men — and a prior contender for Before Night Falls and Biutiful, too — Bardem does what he long has, playing a character who uses a set facade to mask his real self. Here, he's a seemingly kindly factory owner who makes a big fuss about treating his employees like family, but happily lets that ruse slip if they want more money, or have problems at home that disrupt their work, or happen to be an attractive intern. He still sports a smile though, naturally.
In his latest Goya Award-winning part — his 12th to be nominated, too — Bardem becomes the outwardly friendly, inwardly slippery Básculas Blanco. Given the darkness that lingers in his self-serving, self-confident, self-satisfied true nature, the character's name is patently tongue-in-cheek. He presides over a company that makes professional-grade scales, which he inherited from his father, and tells his staff "don't treat me like a boss". But filmmakers who put the word 'good' in their movie's monikers rarely mean it literally, and writer/director Fernando León de Aranoa (who reteams with his lead after 2002's Mondays in the Sun and 2017's Loving Pablo) is one of them. As portrayed with quietly compelling magnetism by Bardem, The Good Boss' ostensibly respectable CEO finds his perfectly calibrated public persona cracking slowly, surely and devilishly, all thanks to the weight of his own ruthlessness.
Awards aren't just coming Bardem's way off-screen for this exceptional turn; they're baked into the movie's plot as well. When The Good Boss begins, Blanco is determined to win a prestigious business prize — but he can't be called desperate, because appearing anything other than commanding, magnanimous and prosperous isn't in the grey-haired, sleekly attired manager's wheelhouse. Still, everyone around him knows how insistent he is about emerging victorious, including his clothing boutique-owning wife Adela (Sonia Almarcha, The Consequences). Their dutiful but hardly passionate marriage says plenty about Blanco, how he operates, and how careful he is about maintaining the illusion he wants the world to see. Indeed, when pretty young Liliana (Almudena Amor, The Grandmother) starts in his marketing department for a month-long stint, she instantly earns his attention, while he still outwardly flaunts committed family-man vibes.
Liliana's arrival isn't without complications either professionally and personally. But in a film that skewers nine-to-five life and relationships alike, that's one of several troubles that upsets the company's balance. Just as Blanco's business is set to be inspected during the prize's judging process, his orderly world is pushed askew. There's the just-retrenched José (Óscar de la Fuente, The Cover), who won't accept his sacking, has set up outside the worksite's gate with a loudspeaker shouting out his woes and even has his school-aged children in tow. Then, there's underling and childhood friend Miralles (Manolo Solo, Official Competition), whose marital struggles are impacting day-to-day operations. And, trusted employee Fortuna (Celso Bugallo, The Paramedic) calls upon Blanco's sway for help with a domestic situation of his own.
The Good Boss doesn't lack for subplots. It's filled with them — overstuffed, even. Putting so much chaos on Blanco's plate stretches the film out to two hours, and it feels it, but there's a method behind León de Aranoa's approach. The deceitful air that lurks around his protagonist, not to mention everything he weathers and gets away with, has its heart in paralleling Spanish history. The filmmaker is in as pointedly comedic territory as he was with 2015's A Perfect Day, his Benicio del Toro-starring English-language debut about aid workers — and while the analogy to his homeland's past here remains unspoken, it's as gleaming as Blanco's ashen tresses nonetheless. An employer, husband, friend and person like The Good Boss' central figure isn't unique to Spain, but it's easy to connect the dots between the morally reprehensible behaviour on display and what's come before at the highest level in the European nation. Also mutely blatant: the statement made about what Blanco and his ilk will justify to maintain their authority.
With its shaggy running time, and the convenience that seethes through some of its plot points, The Good Boss isn't as fine-tuned as it could be. While bearing a completely different tone, it also somewhat sits in the shadow of Pedro Almodóvar's Parallel Mothers, which similarly nods to Spanish history. And, it is inescapably a movie of two clear halves — the patiently building setup, because there's much to establish; and the payoff, where what Blanco's corruption means for men like him in a place with such a past becomes apparent. Still, when León de Aranoa's script slices, it cuts deeply and with a blackly comic disdain for the excesses of power and privilege that's so palpable that feeling it is inescapable. Also a key component: layering in the change bubbling in modern Spain, especially with gender roles.
Regardless of whether The Good Boss happens to be hitting all of its marks at any given moment, Bardem is always mesmerising. Exuding menace has never been hard for him, as his Academy Award illustrates, but he proves as skilled here at letting that unease linger behind a superficially affable exterior as he is at flat-out getting villainous (for the latter, see also: Skyfall). Perhaps what's most striking about that polished-but-ominous combination is how recognisable it is at every turn, as it's designed to be, and how genuinely unnerving it is as a result. Workplaces everywhere are filled with Blancos, of course, aka people who can't ever quite hide their entitled, opportunistic, bullying and winner-takes-all tendencies with pleasant posturing, and yet have made successful careers thanks to coming close enough. Bardem mirrors a world of folks like Blanco with his transfixing performance, but also ensures that The Good Boss' namesake won't be easily forgotten.
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