Love, anger, joy, sorrow—none of these emotions can be found in Bad Education. In this chilly film noir, the usual Pedro Almodóvar trifecta of passion-grief-hysteria—rendered, of course, with Benjamin Moore brightness—is nowhere to be found. Yes, there’s frequent talk of love in this story of priestly pedophilia and prepubescent gay crushes, but none of it is ever brought to life.

Also missing are Almodóvar’s women, though given that the Spanish auteur’s last masterpiece, Talk to Her, was also driven by male characters, this probably isn’t the source of the problem. More likely, Almodóvar just got so caught up orchestrating his refracted plot that he forgot to make the people involved in it all that human. Or maybe he was too busy trying to fit in one more reference to a certain cameo-loving American auteur.

In any case, thank God his star is so magnetic: Gael García Bernal, last seen portraying the sunnier side of Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, again proves he’s not just a pretty face by deftly handling three roles—or, more accurately, three variations on the same character—as the story moves back and forth between times and realities. Though it’s impossible to describe all three personas without giving too much away, suffice it to say that any actor who can convincingly bring Jake Gyllenhaal to mind one minute and Juliette Lewis the next will hold your interest even when the rest of the cast can’t.

Bad Education begins in 1980, when Bernal is introduced as Angel, an actor formerly known as Ignacio who 16 years ago was best buds (and a little more) with Enrique (Fele Martínez), now a filmmaker. Angel, an aspiring writer, brings Enrique a script titled The Visit that tells of their experiences at a Catholic boarding school—and then jumps ahead to imagine Enrique unhappily married and Ignacio now a tranny entertainer called Zahara. After the fictionalized grown-ups meet again, Zahara decides to blackmail their grade-school principal, Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez-Cacho), who repeatedly molested Ignacio and, after once finding the 10-year-old boys together in a bathroom stall after bedtime, expelled Enrique to keep him from molesting Ignacio, too.

Almodóvar weaves the interactions between Enrique and Angel with the imagined parts of Angel’s story, flashbacks to the late ’60s, and a segment set in the late ’70s that fills in a few blanks pertaining to the movie’s Vertigo-esque twist. This complex (though tidy) telling manages to engage, but only because of its difficulty: The characters are too superficial to be sympathetic in the present, and their story isn’t convincing enough to make you care about what happened to them in the past.

The young protagonists’ boy-boy love, for instance, is portrayed by longing stares, a walk to the cinema, and some no-nonsense mutual masturbation. Priest-boy love—and the word “love” is actually used—is also demonstrated by longing stares. But in this case, we also get a shot of bushes that Ignacio runs out of following an unplugged principal-student performance of “Moon River,” as well as a scene in which Ignacio helps Father Manolo remove his vestments and then offers to “do anything” to keep Enrique from being expelled. None of it is very believable. And Zahara’s expressed desire to make Father Manolo “pay” notwithstanding, none of it seems to have been particularly traumatizing, either.

Though Almodóvar has exchanged his usual emotional gut-punch for Hitchcockian intricacy, Bad Education does boast his usual visual flair, from Zahara’s sherbet-colored outfits to Enrique’s sunshine-bright house in the hills. Best of all, though, are the opening credits, whose black, white, and red Saul Bass–like graphics are accompanied by Alberto Iglesias’ perfectly Bernard Herrmann– esque score. It’s a brashly old-Hollywood touch—the type of thing that thrillingly seems to signal that you’re about to behold not a movie, but an event.

If only the rest of the film were the happenin’ happening we’re promised. Bad Education’s bold style and puzzle-piece story certainly grab your attention, but they can’t conceal the movie’s fundamental problem: If they aren’t made with a little love, even Almodóvar’s most stylish pieces just don’t wear well.

There’s plenty of love in writer-director Paul Weitz’s In Good Company—specifically, the back-slapping kind between a senior ad-sales manager and the young whippersnapper who ends up taking his place. Sure, there’s also a traditional romance here, but once the unlikely work partners exchange heartfelt “Listen, [Blank], you’ve really helped me [blank]” speeches after half a film’s worth of resistance, it’s clear where the real connection has occurred.

Weitz’s two main characters initially seem dangerously close to cliché: Dan (Dennis Quaid) is a 51-year-old glad-handing ad salesman at Sports America magazine, which has just been taken over by Globecom, a gigundous media conglomerate. Carter (Topher Grace) is the 26-year-old whiz kid from Globecom who, on the basis of his shameless campaign to market cell phones to children, is promoted into Dan’s position and charged with increasing sales and slashing payroll. Though Dan’s longtime colleagues end up fired, Carter, whether out of guilt or common sense, decides to keep Dan on to serve as his “awesome wing man.” Further complicating matters is Carter’s eventual relationship with Alex (Scarlett Johansson), Dan’s college-age eldest daughter.

Perhaps not all that surprisingly, however, Weitz—who succeeded in making Hugh Grant’s Peter Pan character sympathetic in About a Boy—so thoroughly rounds out the potential caricatures that you soon forgive his contrived setup. Both men are portrayed as simultaneously enviable and sad: Dan’s career shakeup is made more manageable by a solid home life, and the thrill Carter feels when he’s promoted is dampened by loneliness when his new wife (Selma Blair) unexpectedly leaves him. Weitz also takes care to avoid any schadenfreude inherent in the latter situation by keeping the younger man’s cockiness in check; his terror at entering a situation he suspects is over his head is palpable (a deep breath and some hesitation before stepping into Sports America’s office for the first time), if not spoken outright (“I’m scared shitless. I have no idea what I’m doing”).

The two actors are right at home in Weitz’s well-written characters, with Quaid lending a slight dorfiness to Dan—a man not above making a terrible 50 Cent joke in front of his younger colleagues—and Grace easing back on his usually snarky tone to inject genuine sincerity into Carter’s many “awesome!”s. Side-by-side in business suits, the pair look entirely ridiculous together until the story gently shifts their dynamic to where, Weitz seems to argue, it should rightly be: Dan teaching the youngster some old tricks while opening his own mind to change.

Thematically, In Good Company is all over the place, with the dominant ideas of the inhumanity of bottom-line thinking and the joys of career vs. home life at times giving way to myriad father issues—Carter never really had one, and Dan not only struggles with letting his two teenage daughters become adults, but also learns that there’s another baby on the way. Aside from a too-happily-ever-after ending, though, Weitz is such a subtle juggler that all of this seems less like overload than, well, the messiness of real life. The film’s depiction of office politics—the murmured gossip, the building-wide chill of a shouted closed-door meeting—is dead-on. And so, it turns out, are its relationships, especially the ones that Carter so desperately seeks out. You’ve gotta love that.CP

More from WCP