There's nothing in the movie game like watching a director grow and mature right before your eyes, with each progressive film coming across as better than the last, each one feeling like it was made with a more sure hand.

An extra edge in this case is that director Paul Weitz split off from his director brother Chris, after they co-directed, the goofy but sweet American Pie, the underrated Down to Earth and the charming About a Boy. Now on his own as writer and director (but with his brother still a producer), Paul Weitz has fashioned a film for our times, filled with serious issues about the workplace and family life, and sparkling with little comic gems of incidents that serve to make its characters all the more human.

Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) has long been the star ad salesman for a moderately successful sports magazine, and at home he's a happy father and dad. Then one day, everything changes. The magazine is bought by a British hatchet-man, Malcolm McDowell in a too-short cameo that at least gives him room for a classic McDowell speech. Soon, Dan and every other middle-aged white guy on the staff is worrying about job security in a very insecure environment. On the home front, he gets back -- late again -- one night to the softly spoken announcement by his wife Ann (Marge Helgenberger) that she's pregnant. His off-the-cuff reply: "No, honey, you're done with all that."

But she isn't done, and the news gives Quaid his first chance in the film to flash that amazing widescreen smile. He won't be smiling for very long, though. Someone with the odd name Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) is about to enter his work life, and Carter is smiling. He's smiling all the time. As a young upstart who's selling cell phones but is suddenly sent to fix the unbroken ad department at the magazine, he's overeager and often has trouble finding the right words to say. But that smile gets him places. And before anyone can come to their senses, he's Dan's new boss. He's 26. Dan is 51. Trouble brews.

Some will recognize this only as a film about ruthless corporate downsizing, and that's exactly what it is on the surface. But there's a lot roiling away under that surface. It's really the stories of these two men, the old dog and the new dog, trying not to butt heads, then banging them relentlessly, then attempting to make everything work.

The many beauties of the script include its cool sense of irony, the slow revelation of characters' pasts, the ever-building pressure on the two male leads and the feeling that the words aren't actually scripted or being presented by actors. Watching this is more akin to eavesdropping on real discussions by real people -- well, except for the strange absence of any cursing. They gotta make that PG-13 cutoff,

you know.

Of course, it is tightly scripted, and both Quaid and Grace -- especially Grace, whose finest role to date was the unnerving one he gave in Traffic -- are in top form. Grace's Carter smiles even when he doesn't mean it, either because it's a defense mechanism or because he drinks too much coffee. When he's not smiling, it's because he's such a sad-sack fellow, fully aware that he's in way over his head -- whether trying to make good on the new job or trying to hold on to his impatient new wife (Selma Blair). You have to wonder if someone really did give Grace too much coffee before some of his scenes. It's a terrific and maddeningly manic performance.

The film's story arc, telling what's going to happen to these people, is propelled by a series of one-on-one talks by different characters, and the words they speak as well as the way the actors deliver them, are highlights. Among the best are the heartfelt discussions between Quaid and Helgenberger; the often at-odds ones between Quaid and Grace; the warm and mushy ones (and a single fiery one) between Quaid and Scarlett Johansson, who plays his daughter, Alex; and a really touching one between Quaid and David Paymer, as a coworker who sees his life crumbling before him.

That Carter has trouble getting his words out makes for some of the film's best comic moments. That he has no trouble at all saying things when he's with Alex makes for the film's most tender moments. And the scenes of them together serve as the film's linchpin. They introduce a whole different set of complications and they let two excellent (but as yet not fully tested) actors really strut their stuff.

Publication date: 1/13/04

Hollywood of the North: North Idaho and the Film Industry @ Museum of North Idaho

Through Sept. 5, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Oct. 30
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