The title of Spanish director Fernando León de Aranoa’s new corporate comedy, The Good Boss, is meant to be ironic — but only up to a certain point. Javier Bardem’s Julio Blanco, the mild-mannered and benevolent owner of a company that produces scales, is seen both by himself and most of the people around him as the very image of a fair, understanding leader, the kind of person who will take a struggling employee out to dinner and have a chummy talk (and, if necessary, even take the employee out on the town and attempt to get him laid). And he genuinely seems like a good guy. He roams among his employees, cracking jokes and always available. Early in the film, we see him sharing a glass of wine as he bids farewell to a group of employees who have apparently just been let go; they toast and applaud him.
But warning signs abound. That aforementioned accessibility of his apparently also allows Blanco to charm some of the young women who work for him into bed. And for all his easygoing nature, Blanco will do anything, it seems, to keep things placid and under control. When another employee’s son gets caught in a racist attack, Blanco intervenes to get the young man out of jail, then appears to strike a deal with him for future favors. And when a recently fired employee in dire financial straits starts camping outside the factory and loudly protesting his dismissal, Blanco slowly ratchets up his efforts to quell the unrest. After all, his company is up for a major award from the local government, and he’s already cleared a spot for it on a wall filled with plaques. We can’t have anything disrupting the general mood of calm, happy productivity, can we?
It’s a perfect role for Bardem, who has always exuded a kind of natural authority and calm. Every line reading is measured without feeling rehearsed. (He’s a great performer, but that wonderfully solid, anvil-shaped profile of his helps, too. Plus, he gets to indulge his fondness for ridiculous wigs again.) And León de Aranoa does seem to find fascinating parts for the actor — the duo worked years ago on the award-winning unemployment drama Mondays in the Sun (2002) and more recently on Loving Pablo (2017), in which Bardem played the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar as an affable psychotic. This director loves to undercut Bardem’s quiet sense of power. Here, they initially present Blanco as a man fully centered, confident and cool in his movements. But as the ground beneath him begins to slip, a kind of wide-eyed fretfulness seeps in.
There’s more going on here, however, than a gentle satire of the corporate ethos. Blanco prides himself on the product he makes. “The more scales a society produces, the more just it is,” he quotes his father, who established the company, as saying. (The company is called Básculas Blanco, which translates as Blanco Scales — or White Scales, if you will.) Blanco is perturbed when he sees that the ornamental scales that greet visitors at the entrance to his factory are uneven. He’s devoted all his efforts to the idea of equilibrium. Or rather, the appearance of equilibrium. If it takes increasing duplicity, corruption, and even violence to achieve that equilibrium, so be it.
Like all good allegories, this aspect of the film — this sense that what’s being softly skewered here is not a man, or a company, but an entire civilization — sneaks up on us. And that’s part of the film’s genius. Because the avuncular Blanco is quite charming, and we can empathize with some of his frustrations. The guy protesting outside the factory does seem pretty crazy. And the employee who’s screwing up at work is in fact making it impossible for everybody else to do their jobs. And hey, that gorgeous intern Blanco slept with totally seduced him! Before we know it, we’ve become complicit — and it’s only then that The Good Boss drops the (metaphoric) hammer.