What makes a good boss? Is it someone who gets results, someone who can lead, someone who can tackle any problem, or is it just someone who looks like they know what they are doing? In Fernando León de Aranoa's ('Mondays in the Sun') 'The Good Boss', Javier Bardem's ('Skyfall', 'Dune') Julio Blanco is at once all of these things, and none of them.
Julio is the head of the multi-award-winning and supremely successful Blanco's Básculas, or for those who don't speak Spanish, Blanco's Scales. When we first meet Julio he is addressing his subjects - sorry, employees - and getting everybody excited about their nomination as a finalist for a big business award. This award is clearly important to Julio, who will put everything at risk to achieve his dreams. 'The Good Boss' is an insight into Julio, his family and his employees in the week leading up to the awards announcement, where tempers are tested, morals are blurred, and to put de Aranoa's metaphor front and centre, the balance of it all will be tipped one way or the other.
'The Good Boss' is split into the days of the week, and it's a great tool to understand Julio's position and his relationships, and how much they can change over the course of the narrative. On Sunday he helps one of his employees by releasing his son on bail, giving him a job at his wife's shop. On Monday, he takes his long-time colleague Miralles (Manolo Solo, 'Pan's Labyrinth') to dinner to discuss his failing marriage, and we see that everything Julio does is with empathy and warmth; he truly cares about the people he works with. And yet, there is something off-kilter with everything, and even early on there is a ruthlessness in Julio that we should be wary of, if not fear. By Friday, the game has changed and Julio's company is on the brink.
Writer and director de Aranoa moulds his film leading up to the big award, but he positions this from the point of view of Julio, crafting the crescendo as a sinister and manipulative point of no return. It's nothing audiences have not seen before, but de Aranoa manages to bring both searing tension and humour to the fold. Julio gets caught between the façade he projects and the life he lives, sometimes leading to comical situations filled with moments of cringe, other times leading to the final straw that breaks the camel's back. It's a fun and enjoyable way to make a film, and for the most part, de Aranoa certainly delivers on the premise.
There are so many colourful characters that are introduced into the film, all of whom play critical roles in the way Julio manages his emotions. There's the aforementioned Miralles, a long-time friend and inept floor manager, the new intern and office eye candy Liliana (Almudena Amor), Julio's wife Adela (Sonia Almarcha), Roman (Fernando Albizu) the security guard and the bane of Julio's existence, Jose (Óscar de la Fuente), a disgruntled recently fired employee who camps outside the factory in protest. All of these characters and more get sufficient screen time, which rewards the audience when they inevitably confront Julio in one way or the other.
And therein lies the real achievement of this film, that not only is it enjoyable, but it lands the finale and has a great payoff.
And therein lies the real achievement of this film - that it's not only enjoyable, but it lands the finale and has a great payoff. This is mostly thanks to the remarkable Bardem, who knows exactly what type of character he is playing, and understands what parts of him to show and what to hide. He's a manipulative character of course, but he also can care for people, and genuinely wants to do the right thing - as long as it benefits him in the long run. He's picture-perfect from the outside but internally, he craves that recognition and, in reality, wants little to do with his employees. You can just never quite pick whether he's in control, or lost it completely. The manner in which Bardem purposefully portrays Julio leaves a sour taste in the viewers' mouths, where you aren't certain if his actions are meddling, intervening, or gently guiding the scales.
With the plot being so character-driven and crafted in such a way to build tension, 'The Good Boss' unfortunately suffers from the balancing act of pacing and rhythm. Ideally, you want a film like this to keep slowly building until you can't take it anymore, but it often felt one-paced and unable to match the tension of the structure with the tension of the narrative. What's left are scenes that feel dragged out a little too long, and what was needed to bring this film to the next level was just a tighter script and runtime.
Nevertheless, this sharp, dark and often funny film won't leave you wanting. It plays to its strengths and, while often brutal, it has just enough pathos to keep audiences engaged and satisfied. Nominated for 20 Goya awards - the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars - and winning six including Best Film, 'The Good Boss' will guarantee a good time, and continues the strong working relationship between de Aranoa and Bardem.