This review of Fernando León de Aranoa's El Buen Patrón/ The Good Boss was written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. The Good Boss will have its Madison theatrical premiere on Friday, January 27, the first screening in our annual series supported by UW-Madison's Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies (LACIS). The screening begins at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!
By David Vanden Bossche
Fernando León de Aranoa already had a flourishing career working for Spanish television before he decided to helm his first feature film as a bona fide director. His directorial efforts – among them Amador, A Perfect Day and Loving Pablo - went largely unnoticed, until in 2022, his El Buen Patrón/ The Good Boss, suddenly received award upon award at several film festivals around the world. Rightfully so, one might add, because this intriguing film that starts deceivingly lighthearted and playful, gradually transforms into an elegant mature tragicomedy that benevolently chuckles at the mostly self-inflicted tragedies of modern life this flawed but bizarre species called ‘humans’ faces on a daily basis.
The Good Boss is buttressed by a remarkably inspired performance by De Aranoa’s compatriot Javier Bardem (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men among countless others) who clearly is having a blast portraying Blanco, owner and CEO of a small local Spanish factory. Blanco – we never learn his first name – is the type of man who seemingly has full control over his life: he took over his father’s small business – producing scales of various kinds – and turned it into a true success story. And while we hear Blanco in the opening scene mundanely delivering a speech for the occasion of his business being up for a prestigious price, we do feel he has a heart for his employees when we see him altruistically making a call to his high-paid lawyer when one of his workers’ sons has gotten himself into some trouble with the law. Even Blanco’s marriage is still functional, a bit lacking in passionate affection maybe, but – fitting for someone in the business of selling scales – utterly balanced, and most certainly free of any financial woes.
Appearances quickly turn out to be deceptive, however, as we slowly realize that things are not entirely as they seem. However perfect business life may be, it sometimes requires little annoyances like firing people. And isn’t it annoyingly inconvenient that just when an inspection is to be held at the plant, a former disgruntled employee decides to stage a protest in front of the company’s main gate? Equally annoying is the fact that your childhood friend and company right-hand man Miralles seems to have lost his touch when it comes to taking care of daily management. And not so much annoying but rather a bit awkward is that charming new young female intern flashing her smile at you just a tiny bit too much for comfort. Obviously, these pesky details should be of no concern to a man used to always making the right decisions at the right time, no? Not so much, as we will quickly learn.
The Good Boss looks at how we create our own personal narratives and personae, and become incredibly well-versed in convincing ourselves that every step we take and every decision we make is justified within our own personal framework. Weaving comedy around that idea could easily have ventured into the domain of predictable and questionable humor, but the jokes are peppered liberally, never oppressively throughout the film, and everything is elevated by the director’s unmistakable sense of visual flair. Instead of aiming for rather obvious humorous situations and quick laughs, De Aranoa chooses to let things play out slowly, while the camera unobtrusively observes and allows the viewer to be detached and distant, wryly smiling at so much ‘condition humaine’. The distance between viewer and action is often palpable in a literal sense, with repeated use of ‘long shots’ that let us witness a situation, without necessarily allowing us to hear what characters are saying. This approach requires the spectator to pay attention to salient little details – both visual and narratively – and the film contains a considerable amount of neatly orchestrated little surprises that are undergirded by the well-crafted visual language.
The blending of drama and sometimes stingy, but always heartfelt comedy, manages to unmask several painful universal truths, without having to resort to moralizing or the kind of emphatic rhetorical formulas that lesser films tend to apply. Many contemporary problems and discussion points are touched upon in The Good Boss, but the film leaves it to the viewer to discern them and never insults the audience’s intelligence by spelling out what we are supposed to take away from a given situation.
Comedies that are both well-scripted and visually interesting are – alas – a progressively rare breed in today’s cinema (American or elsewhere). The Good Boss isn’t the kind of film you are likely to find on any critic’s ‘best-of-the-year’ list. Its low profile and genre keep it from being perceived as ‘high brow award fare’. However, in the way the film manages to combine keen visual craftmanship with social critique, while still functioning as an engaging comedy, it is a perfect alternative for both the run-of-the-mill comedic blockbuster and the more sophisticated comedies we tend to associate with arthouse fare.