The Company Men – Review


Timely, But Not a Downer

It’s sort of fitting that The Company Men was written and directed by John Wells, the show runner for TV dramas like ER and China Beach, because the film feels like a spin-off from last year’s Up in the Air. Both films depict a dire economic climate but from different points of view.

As stock prices fall and production decreases, the corporate brass must answer to its shareholders and make the necessary changes to ensure that the lights to stay on. Unfortunately, this means downsizing. That was George Clooney’s racket in Up in Air; he was a traveling hatchet man hired to dismiss employees for employers who don’t have the gumption to do it themselves. Throughout the film were instances of him in hatchet mode. Some on the receiving end had blank, how-could-this-be-happening-to-me stares. Others were outraged. Some wore blue collars, while others wore white. And while these moments felt dire at the time, they were brief. The Company Men is the exact opposite. The audience is supposed to feel uncomfortable.

A picture about unemployment released in a season where everyone is supposed to feel holly and jolly seems like somebody has a dark sense of humor. But in a year that has already had the documentaries Inside Job and Casino Jack and the United States of Money, both of which recount the mitigating causes of the recession we are in currently, at least this fictional drama offers some stability in as far as letting the viewer know that these are merely actors and this is just a movie.

The Company Men is not overly deep in its depiction of unemployment, but it remains engrossing because of the ensemble John Wells has amassed. Respected actors like Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper play a pair of executives who have been living off the hog for years. There was a time when they were blue collars rising through the rank and file before finally reaching a position that paid them handsomely enough to be able to afford lunches that cost five Franklins. Such a hedonist lifestyle should make us embrace their departures as executives, feeling they were the ones who got our country into this giant economic rigmarole that we’re in now.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the unemployment line: We remember that greedy old men in suits are people too. It’s easy to look at executives and not have an ounce of sympathy for hardships they may encounter – the belief being that their bank account can take care of it. Yet as their jobs disappear we see them as they are and not who they appear to be.

No more is this true than when Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) gets axed. A sales executive making $160k a year, he has the perfect suburban life with a wife, a two-storey to go with his two kids, and a Porsche. Affleck owns the role, in which he basically tones down and reverses roles from a character he played in Boiler Room ten years ago. Even unemployed he works his Bostonian charm – I’m convinced Ben should never make another film outside of Boston (unless he’s going to New Jersey to hetrosexualize a lesbian) – and is able to make former co-workers think he is still a mover-and-shaker.

For his directorial debut, John Wells plays it safe in not having his unemployment tale be a complete downer. It shows in small add-on scenes that do little to advance the story and are just there to fill space. That’s typical coming from a TV background where subplots are allowed to dangle like participles. Wells, however, does manage to capture the psychological effects that unemployment has on the individual. Cooper, pushing 60, his best days long gone, is Mr. Hopeless. Thrust into a difficult position of being unable to provide for his family. Affleck at thirty-seven seems relatively young and should find a new job with ease, but with that sort of wishful thinking he’s more likely to be polishing Porsches instead of driving them. Jones, the oldest miser in the picture, reflects on the workingman and how globalization spurred the death of American manufacturing.

I would be remissed if I didn’t point out that the posters promoting The Company Men feature a man and a woman walking on high wires while carrying briefcases. An allusion to David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, a play and later film about real estate salesman teetering on the brink of joblessness, no doubt. The Company Men is no Glengarry, because Wells leaves the audience hopefully optimistic that good things will happen even in the most unsavory of times.

Director: John Wells
Notable Cast: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Craig T. Nelson, Maria Bello, Rosemarie DeWitt
Writer(s): John Wells

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