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'Company Man'

Past imperfect 'Company Man' takes the slapstick road to '50s Havana

Friday, April 06, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

If Woody Allen had written "Forrest Gump," the result might have been something like "Company Man," now at the Denis Theater.

'Company Man'

RATING: PG-13 for sexual humor and drug content.

STARRING: Douglas McGrath, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Woody Allen.

DIRECTORS: Peter Askin and Douglas McGrath.

WEB SITE: www.companyman



Before he started directing movies, taking himself seriously and canoodling with his then-girlfriend's adopted daughter, Allen wrote a play called "Don't Drink the Water." He set this Cold War comedy at a U.S. embassy in an Iron Curtain country. An American family takes refuge there after being accused of spying and wears out its welcome rather quickly.

The Cold War backdrop and diplomatic slapstick recur in "Company Man," which is set in the 1950s and features the Woodman making a rare acting appearance in a movie he didn't direct. Douglas McGrath, who shares screenwriting credits with Allen on "Bullets Over Broadway," assumes the mantle of auteur -- he's the star, co-director and co-writer (both with Peter Askin).

McGrath plays Allen Quimp, a high-school grammar teacher, the kind who is always correcting your speech while smiling heartily, thinking he is being really helpful and that you actually appreciate his constant interruptions.

His wife, the social-climbing Daisy (Sigourney Weaver), is tired of waiting for him to acquire ambition, money and status. When her father threatens to make Quimp work for him, the desperate teacher stalls them by claiming he works for the CIA. No one believes him because he's such a helpless nerd. That's why he's perfect for the job, Quimp replies. Who would ever suspect that he's a spy?

Certainly not the CIA, which arrives to end Quimp's little masquerade. But as that fella Gump once said, "Stupid is as stupid does." Through the dumbest of luck, Quimp gets credit for convincing a Soviet ballet dancer (Ryan Phillippe) to defect. If he had any ego at all, Quimp could be another Maxwell Smart.

As it is, the CIA has no choice but to give him a job. However, the agency isn't stupid enough to send him anywhere dangerous. So they assign him to Cuba, that Caribbean backwater. How are they to know that Fidel Castro (Anthony LaPaglia) is about to overthrow the dictator Batista (Alan Cumming)?

Basically, "Company Man" burlesques American policy toward Castro and the CIA's many Rube Goldberg plans to eliminate him -- from poison cigars to making his beard fall out. Only a complete imbecile could attempt such cloak-and-dagger absurdities. Hence, Allen Quimp -- a Gump-like figure whose bumbling actions explain all those unexplainable mistakes we made in Cuba.

But he doesn't work alone. Woody Allen plays the CIA's top man in Havana, a bureau chief in silly clothes whose overriding mission is to get transferred out as soon as possible.

John Turturro portrays an overeager Cuban patriot obsessed with killing Castro. Denis Leary is the unfortunate CIA officer who welcomes Quimp to Cuba. Cumming renders Batista as a social butterfly who would rather decorate his palace than his troops. Weaver's conniving Daisy, realizing he'd be right at home in Greenwich, butters him up. LaPaglia's Castro reminds me mostly of Rob Reiner with hair.

At this point, about all that's missing are Groucho glasses and maybe the barest hint of subtlety. The movie basically consists of comic bits tied together by the characters and the outline of history. Some of these are quite funny, but too much of the movie has the tone of McGrath's performance -- trying too hard, laughing too much at its own conceits, a one-note comedy playing at too intense a pitch. It even infects, to varying degrees, such usually reliable actors as Turturro and Weaver.

Still, in this age of teen sex comedies, I can't be too harsh with a movie that tries its hand at political satire, even if everyone involved is dead except Castro. Then again, considering the poison cigars, that's pretty ironic in itself.

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