The Good Boss: A film unfortunately that Bernie Sanders would also like
Written and directed by Fernando León de Aranoa
The good boss (El buen boss) is the latest work by Spanish filmmaker Fernando León de Aranoa, responsible for Mondays in the sun (2002), a perfect day (2015), Policy, instruction manual (2016) and Loving Pablo (2017).
The title of the new film refers to Blanco (Javier Bardem), the owner of Blanco Scales, a manufacturer of industrial scales in a Spanish provincial town. Blanco is pulling out all the stops to prepare its plant and workforce for an impending visit by a committee that will decide which local company will receive a prestigious business excellence award.
However, Blanco faces a number of obstacles in his path: a fired worker leading a loud and angry protest just outside company property; a manager with marital problems who makes one costly production mistake after another; an older veteran employee with a racist thug of a son; and a new intern, with whom Blanco begins a casual affair, who turns out to be the daughter of a close family friend with a longtime crush on him!
The various dilemmas seem to pile up, intertwine and conspire against Blanco’s determination to present the facility to the awarding committee as efficient, fair and problem-free.
Its response is to interfere in serious and ultimately dangerous ways with the lives of its employees. Blanco bails out young thug Salva (Martín Páez) and puts him to work in his wife’s shop. He tries unsuccessfully to convince his production manager Miralles (Manolo Solo) to stop worrying about his wife and focus on the factory. In this effort, he takes the unfortunate man to a bar where they meet the amorous intern Liliana (Almudena Amor) and a friend. The sexual adventure has consequences for Blanco. After learning that the attractive young woman is someone he knew as a little girl, he abruptly breaks things off, prompting Liliana to act on her own.
As for the “reduced” worker José (Óscar de la Fuente), who takes full advantage of a megaphone, signs and banners to blacken Blanco’s name and damage the company’s reputation, the boss company tries one maneuver after another to get rid of the man. The police refuse to remove José from public property, nor cajole and bribe (“I won’t budge”). Eventually, the increasingly anxious factory owner turns to more drastic means.
Blanco pursues his goals, in his mind, with the best of intentions. The company’s employees are like “children” to him. We are “one big family”, he tells them. And even when the measures to be taken are unpleasant, Blanco compares himself to a surgeon who does not want to amputate but has no choice.
Liliana, on the other hand, advances the uncertainty principle. She argues that when you measure something (with a scale, for example) or come closer to another human being, you inevitably introduce change and unpredictable change. In this sense, Blanco’s perpetual efforts to achieve a perfect balance, in his life, in his factory, through increasingly dramatic interventions, have the opposite effect. The director affirms that one “is always the first victim of his acts”.
Aranoa further explains, in a director’s statement, that he wants “a complex and artistically ambitious cinema”, which leaves a trace “of who we are, of the moment in time in which we live; and that at the same time amuses us, intrigues us and moves us. Cinema, he explains, which also uses humour, “sometimes even light, quirky; but without renouncing commitment, truth or poetry. A cinema that examines the very roots of who and what we are in search of the hypothesis of what we will one day become.
It is ambitious, and perhaps admirable. Unfortunately, Aranoa does not succeed.
The good boss has certain recognizable and identifiable characters and situations. There are fun lines and scenes. The actors play with skill, even honor. Aranoa certainly proves Blanco isn’t to blame for the semi-tragic turn of events; he is as much a victim of objective circumstances as anyone else. Its economic imperatives, and the psychological state associated with it, inexorably push the owner in specific directions. In a general sense, it’s true that from his point of view, Blanco has no choice.
The biggest problem is not that the drama in The good boss takes place from the perspective of a factory owner. Or, at least, that’s not the biggest problem As such. The rich and powerful have been placed at the center of many novels, plays and dramas with considerable success, even become likable characters, if the work in its entirety is carried out with sufficient criticality and urgency. It is certainly possible to describe the terrible and “inevitable” things a factory owner has to do, for example, and the psychic cost the individual in question pays. Oscar Wilde was not alone in understanding that wealth and power are immensely degrading and demoralizing. Wilde argued, with his usual taste for paradox, that “we must get rid” of private property “in the interest of the rich”.
However, that is not what it is about. It operates on a much lower, much less conscious level. The filmmaker wants “a complex and artistically ambitious cinema”, but he hasn’t really generated it. The good boss suffers from superficiality, social and psychological. The characters are developed efficiently but not deeply. They act more or less as expected. Nothing here is deeply moving or disturbing. The film has too much of the character of an “instructive” parable told by a somewhat condescending benefactor.
The parable is rather insipid. The director also explains, “Of all the challenges we faced, perhaps this one, the challenge of setting the right tone was the riskiest. Humor and pain: the precise measurement on each dish of the scale. But Aranoa failed on this point. The film has almost the exact opposite tone of what it should have.
The good boss is excessively facetious, even flippant. The worker who protests is presented as a ridiculous character. His fight against being fired is described as senseless, hysterical and self-pity. We’re made to feel: why doesn’t he just pack his bags and go home? After all, isn’t that a bit of a stretch?
Such an attitude suggests a rather self-satisfied petty bourgeois, who has never been out of work for long, with a middle-class family somewhere and perhaps some savings too.
The Spanish working class faces questions of life and death: the fight against the resurgence of fascism, the betrayals of the new and old “left”, the ever-deepening war against Russia, the vicious anti-immigrant campaign of the establishment, the catastrophic climate, the destruction of jobs and living standards. There is virtually no hint of any of this in The good bosssupposedly a movie about class relations!
Aranoa wants his film to “go dark… without losing the smile”. There are laughs, and there are laughs. Here an amused benevolence, soft envelope, weighs down the events. The filmmaker is far from being severe enough with himself or with others. The situation is much more advanced than he imagines. In fact, his own work has become more self-indulgent. Mondays in the sun, 20 years ago, wasn’t a major work, but it was generally more compelling, more disruptive. We are with Wilde, who maintained that “disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is the original virtue of man. It is by disobedience that progress has been made, by disobedience and by rebellion.
Aranoa’s critique is a kind of sure critique, a critique of secondary questions. That he dedicated his 2016 documentary to Podemos, the Spanish upper-middle-class ‘left’ party that is now part of a coalition government in Spain, is no coincidence.
Regarding this movie, Policy, instruction manual, Variety commented approvingly that Podemos was probably the Spanish party that “socialist” Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party quack and staunch defender of capitalism, “likes best, and it’s a movie Bernie Sanders would love”. Variety is probably correct on this point, but we, for our part, regard the comment as a scathing criticism.