The raffish charisma and sinister, saturnine handsomeness of Javier Bardem is what raises this movie above the standard of soap-opera … mostly. Certainly, it would be less without that great slab of a beau-moche face looming over the action, more heavy-lidded and sensual in middle age: part matinee idol, part gargoyle. This is a workplace comedy-satire from Spanish film-maker Fernando Léon de Aranoa, and it has been a huge success on his home turf. His 2005 film Mondays in the Sun also starred Bardem as one of a crowd of morose guys coming to terms with unemployment – but here Bardem goes from worker to management by playing Blanco, the owner of a successful factory making scales, a product which is to do much metaphorical heavy lifting in the drama that follows. These range from tiny hi-tech kitchen gadgets to huge agricultural scales, for weighing out livestock.
Blanco prides himself on a condescendingly fatherly approach to his workforce, often giving speeches sentimentally reminding his staff he has no children with his elegant wife Adela (Sonia Almarcha) and claiming that they are all his family. But it is a very dysfunctional family and Blanco is in fact blandly and complacently sexist and racist. He is in the habit of seducing attractive female interns (the film reveals that he creepily has a certain “type”) and dismissing them at the end of their placement with a little gift of jewellery. Blanco’s company is up for an industry award, but there are problems with his executive team and Blanco is furious that a certain worker, Jose (Óscar de la Fuenta) whom he has just made redundant with a derisory payoff, has now set up a protest camp just outside the factory which could sour the judges’ mood on their way in.
So perhaps just to relax, Blanco seduces another intern: Liliana (Almudena Amor), who seems outrageously forward with him from the outset. But there is something Blanco doesn’t know about Liliana, and his eventual discovery accelerates a kind of breakdown or unravelling that has been a long time coming. Blanco has always taken it upon himself to get involved in his employees’ personal lives, and he does this more and more, removing the lids from all sorts of cans of worms, in an attempt to exert control over this bizarre parodic family whom he surveys from his executive office which is placed high above the shop floor.
The Good Boss rattles along watchably enough: though perhaps it would have been better as a four-part TV drama. Some of its characterisation and scene-setting is, moreover, a bit on the nose. The subplot involving Liliana is very good: perhaps the whole movie should simply have been about this, although that might tilt it towards a kind of satirical grotesquerie that the director didn’t want. But Bardem’s natural style and charisma keeps the film in place. There is something almost Mephistophelean in his brooding watchfulness: he is perhaps more the tempter than the tempted, more the invisible figure whispering in Blanco’s ear, than Blanco himself. Yet Bardem is a very human face of petty managerial corruption.
• The Good Boss is released on 15 July in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.