The Good Boss review – Javier Bardem bosses it in unsubtle Spanish satire

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The Guardian

An impressively slick and slimy performance from Javier Bardem is the standout selling point for this serviceable if (perhaps appropriately?) workaday satire on corporate corruption and alienated capitalism. Reuniting with writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa, with whom he made 2002’s highly acclaimed Mondays in the Sun and the 2017 biographical crime drama Loving Pablo, Bardem dominates the screen in a role that exploits his ability to combine smarmy charm with reptilian repugnance. He may be all smiles, but Bardem’s antihero hides petty menace behind his executive specs, topped off with a bland paternalist hairdo that weirdly evokes the pudding-bowled killer from No Country for Old Men in what would presumably be his “silver fox” period.

Described by its director as both “a tragicomic tale of a worn-out labour ecosystem” and “the reverse angle shot of Mondays in the Sun”, The Good Boss casts Bardem as Blanco, suave chief of a provincial company that makes industrial scales and that claims to treat its workforce like family. We meet Blanco delivering a morale-boosting address to the troops that is almost instantly revealed to be all show – a condescending performance designed to land a regional government award for “business excellence”. Blanco’s wall of prizes is already groaning, but a space waits expectantly for this last piece of the self-aggrandisement puzzle. If only Blanco can maintain a balanced air of tranquil serenity for the judges, then the prize is his for the taking.

Yet beneath the surface, turbulence swirls – with Manolo Solo’s faithful production manager Miralles dropping the ball because of marital crises (which Blanco tries to resolve via an ill-fated nightclub sojourn) and long-term employee Jose (Óscar de la Fuente) setting up a bedraggled protest camp outside the plant after being given the boot, thanks to cutbacks, causing him to lose his home, his family and his marbles.

There’s also the matter of Blanco’s own indiscretions. An early scene economically establishes his predatory habit of seducing and then abandoning young women who fall into his employ, laying the groundwork for an excruciating liaison with an intern whose identity he carelessly fails to divine – with toe-curling dinner-party consequences. Blanco may claim that his factory is simply an extension of his own family, but it’s clear that his well-practised propensity for secrets and lies knows no boundaries. Whether at home or at work, this pillar of respectability who blathers sonorously about serving “the community” has the morals of a snake.

“Sometimes you have to trick the scale to get the exact weight,” says Blanco, who is not above using a bullet to do just that. Indeed, from the off-kilter display by the factory gate that never quite aligns to the overarching theme of justice being not so much blind as dumb, The Good Boss doesn’t so much tease out its central balancing metaphor as stamp it firmly into the ground. Subtle it is not. Meanwhile daft comedic set pieces (the security guard’s increasingly poetic attachment to the rhyme and metre of Jose’s placard slogans) rub shoulders with more sinister but still slapstick-inflected subplots that leave Blanco screaming at his own shit-stained reflection – the void staring into the void.

At the 2022 Goya awards, The Good Boss (which beat contenders such as Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers to become Spain’s submission for the 94th Oscars) received a record-breaking 20 nominations, with wins including best film, best director, best actor, best original screenplay and best score. The last of these is particularly deserved, with composer Zeltia Montes (whose CV includes such diverse documentaries as Delicate Balance and Sad Hill Unearthed) providing a sprightly note of arch metronomy that reminded me somewhat of Michael Nyman’s strict-tempo themes for Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. That’s a very different film, admittedly, but one with which this nonetheless shares a dyspeptic brand of social satire, filtered through an increasingly absurdist sheen of funereal farce.

July 17, 2022 at 12:57PM Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

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