What was the partial inspiration for Paul Weitz's office-politics tale about a middle-aged middle manager (Dennis Quaid) whose new 26-year-old boss (''That '70s Show'''s Topher Grace) begins dating his teenage daughter (Scarlett Johansson)? A 1995 sociological tract called ''Jihad vs. McWorld.'' ''The premise was that there are forces that threaten open society,'' says Weitz. ''One of them was ethnic factionalization, and the other one was the idea that capitalism equals democracy.''
Did we mention this is a comedy?
Despite its academic ancestry, ''Synergy'' aims for the same droll humor as Weitz's Oscar-nominated ''About a Boy'' (which he codirected with brother Chris). For Quaid's Dan Foreman, the comedy springs from pain. ''He's just trying to maintain an even strain and swallow what's been handed to him,'' says the actor. ''Topher has my job, he's in my office, and now he's with my daughter. It's just too much for a man to take.''
Weitz took care to make sure the audience's allegiance won't be too firmly planted in one camp. ''I hope your heart goes out to both of them,'' he says. Confirms Grace: ''It's not like 'Changing Lanes,' where you feel like this guy's the good guy and then there's the other guy. You feel for both of these guys.''
Grace -- who's been earning small parts in big films like ''Mona Lisa Smile'' and ''Ocean's Eleven'' -- read four times for the role and convinced Weitz that his upbringing perfectly complemented the film's corporate setting. ''I'm from Connecticut, my father's a businessman,'' he says. ''I said to Paul, 'My second language is how to talk to people in California. My first language is the way the script is written.''' Once cast, he found himself appearing opposite two award-winning costars. ''It's a huge break for me,'' Grace says. ''The first day of rehearsal, it was me, Scarlett, and Dennis. We were all standing in front of Paul's office, and I go, 'One of these things is not like the other...'''
WHAT'S AT STAKE Grace's shot to prove he's got big-screen chops.