There are certain things that only Javier Bardem can do, and it's always a pleasure to see the actor in a film undiluted by the storytelling or filmmaking conventions of Hollywood. There are notable exceptions in the English language, though -- No Country for Old Men being the prime example -- but I've always felt that it's always in the films made on his home turf that he excels at the most.
He seems more comfortable when delivering lines in his native tongue, Spanish. In "El buen patron" (English: The Good Boss), Bardem reunites with Mondays in the Sun and Loving Pablo director Fernando León de Aranoa, and the result is, in my book, one of Bardem's most arresting performances.
Bardem plays Julio Blanco, the head honcho of a factory manufacturing industrial scales. His company is one of the three shortlisted for an excellence award. He has a week to go before the award committee shows up at his place for appraisal, and Blanco wants everything to look perfect. Naturally, the film narrates its events in chapters, each named after the day on which each uncomfortable -- to Blanco -- event occurs.
So he tells them to say nice things about him and the company. A married, childless middle-aged man, Blanco wants them to believe that they are all his 'children' and that it's all one big, happy family. But one glance at his employees will tell you everything is not as they seem. At least one person is making Blanco's life hell for recently laying him off. But problems also crop up in the form of his long-standing employee and friend Miralles (Manolo Solo), a newly joined intern, Lilliana (Almudena Amor), and some of his other co-workers, the interactions with whom will bring forth some unpleasant emotions.
Blanco's factory represents many organisations that operate under the guise of a well-oiled, tightly-knit 'family', but only the employees know what it really feels like to work there -- only they are privy to their company's innermost secrets; only they know what it feels like to work under a manipulative boss; only they know how their long-standing allegiance gets repaid.
For the most part, The Good Boss maintains the tone of a dark comedy, with Blanco's repeated attempts to quell the increasing discord that has suddenly gripped him and everyone around him. He wants to create the impression that he is doing favours for his employees out of genuine concern for their welfare -- and almost fools us, the viewer, too, because he is so convincing. Talk about a fantastic performance!
One of the fascinating qualities about Blanco is that he manages his temper successfully for 99 per cent of the film, despite getting annoyed on multiple occasions. He is always looking for balance -- both literally and figuratively. The film represents the latter through objects, such as an unbalanced scale installation at his company entrance, which constantly bothers him. Another allegorical image has him dealing with bird droppings when the protesting man tells him to eat s***.
It's that remaining one per cent where we finally see him blow his fuse -- when he realises that he has completely lost control of that which he has been so desperately trying to stop from going off the rails.
The Good Boss is a story where nobody is a saint. Even the one character who felt wronged by Blanco -- the character who we tend to root for the most -- gets his hands dirty. Some of them expected something from him, which he was more than willing to oblige. In the case of some others, things get ugly, and they hit back when they figure out his true intentions. But Blanco being Blanco, knows how to work around what he considers minor inconveniences.
There is much hilarity to be found in a few of Blanco's predicaments, like when he drives Miralles to a 'surveillance' mission after the latter suspects his wife of cheating; or the interactions between Blanco, his security guard, and the laid-off man camping outside his gate with placards.
And Blanco's reactions to unexpected developments, such as the truth about his much younger intern, are acting masterclasses. These are serious situations, mind you, but who doesn't like seeing an extremely devious character put through the wringer?
Blanco's actions recalled the hit Netflix series Ozark, also of people looking for ways to keep internal disturbances from affecting their way of doing business. It's impossible to imagine anyone in the role of Blanco because it needed someone of Bardem's calibre -- his charisma and sexuality are advantageous here -- and there is no one like him today. The film's wicked ending can make you uncomfortable with one particular idea at first but then take you in a completely different direction. And it makes sense because it stays faithful to the character.
The Good Boss deserved all six of the Goya awards (the Spanish Oscars) it got -- Best Picture, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay, Score and Editing. I had a big smile by the end because it gave me a sense of satisfaction that I didn't get from any recent film.
Director: Fernando León de Aranoa
Cast: Javier Bardem, Manolo Solo, Almudena Amor, Tarik Rmili, Sonia Almarcha
Streaming on: Prime Video