It’s estimated that the average person will spend a third of their life at work. It’s always confounding to realize, then, that there are relatively few movies about it, and almost all of them fall into slapstick. Perhaps this is because it’s hard to make an office ring true without also making it ring dull, and because most people watch movies to escape the soullessness of work. Fernando León de Aranoa’s “The Good Boss” does the job, and not much else.
This capable but underwhelming Spanish-language comedic drama concerns the ill-fated attempts of Blanco Scales (Javier Bardem) — who heads a scale factory in the Spanish provinces — to resolve trouble in his work and love life. However, the line between work and love is a farce. Everyone warns everyone else not to have affairs with each other, then fails to heed their own advice, and no one achieves either business or pleasure.
In de Aranoa’s earlier biopic “Loving Pablo,” Bardem played the drug lord Pablo Escobar. Bardem, in his own demurely fumbling way, isn’t all that different here as the boss Blanco. He prides himself on running what is described in news headlines as “one big family”; predictably, his treatment of each employee as his own kin is his downfall.
The most judicious thing about the film is that it almost completely foregoes a soundtrack, except for the jauntily suspenseful and thankfully brief music whenever Blanco saunters or drives somewhere, and an unforgivable cover of Michael Bublé’s “Feeling Good” when Blanco welcomes an inspection committee at the end.
The story is shot soberly. Even the interiors look overcast. The camera never draws attention to itself (though the way most of the dialogue drags on, one wishes it would). There are some choice shots
— a warbler eats from and s—s in a working yet crooked scale statue at the factory gates. There are some strained laughs — Blanco’s right-hand man Miralles (Manolo Solo) interrupts a crucial conversation to take a business call and almost gets hit by a truck, sending papers flying. Twenty minutes in, the film’s a passable slog.
Then, at a dinner scene with Blanco and Miralles, it congeals like hot gazpacho. Miralles is distressed because his wife Aurora (Mara Guil) wants to leave him. She “needs air.” “What the f— should I do,” he asks, “buy her a bottle of oxygen?” Blanco urges balance, and later asks his wife Adela (Sonia Almarcha) how she’d interpret Aurora’s comment. Adela says “she’s with someone else.” In the next shot, Blanco shamelessly ogles Liliana (Almudena Amor), a superficially demure marketing intern. Spoiler alert: everyone bones each other. The tensions would be inventive if the story wasn’t so slow. No one does much but speak and shag, but at least everyone’s impressively cast.
The most interesting character (though the line is lower than a matador’s cloth) is one of the least developed — Khaled (Tarik Rmili), an Arab logistics director who faces subtle, steady racism by his peers, and also does his fair share of boning. He chews Blanco out for his “family crap”: workers are paid for their work, end of story. Yet, everyone knows that when the boss sets his emotions aside, things get worse.
There’s an amusing illustration of this in the subplot when Blanco fires a worker named Jose (Óscar de la Fuente). As the committee is set to arrive, Jose launches a one-man smear campaign by parking his children across the street in a homeless encampment replete with “Burn in Hell” banners and matching shirts targeting Blanco.
In its own unmemorable way, the movie spends two hours hammering the same point home: justice without loyalty is hell, which is true enough. Yet, justice covers its eyes for a reason. Blanco withholds raises because one worker who gains 50 euros gets upset that another gains 100. In the end, Blanco fixes the scale statue by taping a bullet under the higher plate. It doesn’t matter if the scale’s rigged, de Aranoa thinks, as long as the weight’s right.