My boss’ daughter’s big, fat, corporate relationship’

“In Good Company”Universal PicturesWritten and directed by Paul WeitzStarring Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid,and Scarlett JohanssonRated PG-13/109 minOpens Jan. 14, 2005

Three out of five stars

Where, oh where, is the perfect star-vehicle for Topher Grace? With every embarrassed half-smile, befuddled blink and hilarious understatement, he’s fast becoming one of Hollywood’s most likeable young actors.

He charms the house down in mediocre stuff like “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton,” and owns his one scene in the otherwise awful “Ocean’s 12” with sublime self-parody.

But where’s that one break-out role that truly gives voice to the gawky puppy-dog toeing the line of stardom?

How about pairing this guy up with Cameron Crowe or James L. Brooks or Woody Allen? Those directors have an affinity for bringing out the best in their actors (Brooks made Adam Sandler lovable-I never thought I’d say that).

Paul Weitz, writer and director of “In Good Company,” knows charming. He and his brother Chris made the first and best “American Pie,” and then managed to make Hugh Grant incredibly likeable and surprisingly non-smug in “About a Boy.” Paul is on his own now with “Company,” and you’d think he and his star, Grace, would be a match made in heaven-you know, sparks flying, trumpets blaring, stuff like that.

Almost-but not quite.

“In Good Company” tells the timely story of Carter Duryea (Grace), a 26-year-old, white-collared yuppie who plays the right cards and the right managers, climbing the corporate ladder at Olympic speed.

Faster than you can say “AOL-Time Warner,” his company merges with another company (more like swallows it whole), and Carter slides into the executive ad sales position formerly filled by Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid).

We watch Dan in the early scenes and see that he’s good at his job-he patiently and tastefully schmoozes his clients, focusing on personal relationships. His methods may seem old-fashioned, but they’re effective. Alas, in a new corporate world more interested in numbers and hitting quotas, 50-year-old Dan may get left in the dust.

Dan’s not too happy about his demotion, and being usurped by a “kid” half his age doesn’t help. He asks Carter how much experience he has in ad sales. “Uh, well, not much.” “How much?” “None.”

Dan smiles on the outside, while the little man inside his brain knocks over furniture, no doubt.

Carter is clearly in over his head. Everyone at the office resents him. He keeps referring to everything and everyone as “awesome,” like a starry-eyed high school kid. And all that extra work takes a toll on his social life (in other words, it’s D.O.A.).

Dan, meanwhile, has problems of his own. His wife (Marg Helgenberger) announces she’s pregnant. His daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson) has been accepted to pricey NYU. It’s a good thing Dan has a cushy, well-paying job…oops.

“In Good Company” has the ingredients of a cookie-cutter sitcom, but it goes off in interesting and unpredictable directions. It’s inevitable that Carter and Alex will meet and collide like the world’s horniest atoms. It’s also inevitable that the ice will melt between Carter and Dan and they’ll work together to land that really difficult client. The way those storylines work out, however, is both realistic and touching-the characters act and react like normal human beings would, not like puppets of the plot.

What could have been a simplistic romantic-comedy, or even a wicked corporate satire, instead goes the route of self-discovery (for better or worse). Like the selfish Hugh Grant character in “About a Boy,” Carter must decide what his priorities really are and what he plans to do about it.

If the movie falls short of greatness (or even really goodness), it’s because it’s content with being merely pleasant. “In Good Company” is just that-good company that stays in line. Weitz sets his story in the world of corporate America, but he doesn’t mine it for much humor or canny insight (see “Office Space” for a mine well dug).

In fact, the whole corporate faade is just that-a faade, a pinball machine in which the characters bounce off one another. When the characters are this likeable, that’s not such a bad thing, but it is a bit shallow.

Johansson plays Alex as a full-blooded, perceptive young woman who is able to take a step back from her relationship with Carter and see it for what it really is. Johansson continues to wow in what should have been a more strongly written role.

Never one for flash, Dennis Quaid offers another understated performance that proves sometimes less is more. It’s good, old-fashioned American acting, something he and other actors like Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood have down pat.

We tend to take their style for granted-which is probably why none of them has ever won an Academy Award for acting. I guess that’s what Honorary Oscars are for.

As for Topher Grace, his star will continue to wait. He plays Carter with all his usual tricks, but the script just doesn’t provide him with a very memorable character. Where are all the Benjamin Braddocks and Lloyd Dobblers and Jerry Maguires? Once a character like that is thrown Grace’s way, he’ll really bust out.

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