THE COMPANY MEN

SCHADENFREUDE

The Company Men

***

Review by Joel Frost

It’s a common refrain, perhaps you’ve heard it said or uttered it yourself, “I don’t want to think while I’m watching a movie.” These days, with high levels of unemployment affecting the country, the escape that can be found at the multiplex is perhaps even more sacred to some. The last thing that someone who has lost their job wants to think about while watching a movie is the economic crisis we’re somewhere in the midst of.

If you’re one of those people, “The Company Men” might not be for you. Perhaps, though, a little schadenfreude turns you on occasionally, especially in your current low state. I mean, you might not be able to feed your kids, but you’re an honest person. You never asked for anything and you don’t get anything handed to you just because of your bright eyes and angular jaw-line. In that case, here’s what this film offers: Ben Affleck loses his job (and his Porsche!), and is humbled by having to take on blue-collar employment. Sounds a little better now, right? Hold on, there’s more: Chris Cooper, a well-payed executive, does something very dangerous behind the wheel of his car! There’s no explosion, unfortunately. Still not sold? Umm… the guy from “Coach” is in it. So is Tommy Lee Jones. He usually plays sheriffs or cowboys and stuff.

The truth is, “The Company Men” isn’t a great piece of escapism. What it does do well, though, is show the consequences of corporate America’s lust for profit. Gene McClary (Jones) is a very high-level businessman in a corporation that is satisfying the desires of its stock-holders (constant expectation of growth) by laying off thousands of employees. McClary acts as the sympathetic liaison between his partner/boss, the almost cartoonishly unashamed James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), and the rest of the helpless workforce, mainly embodied by Bobby Walker (Affleck). Walker is dismissed and quickly goes from a confident, Porsche-driving master-of-the-universe to a deadbeat in denial. He has his wife (Maggie, played by Rosemarie DeWitt) and his kid, but everything else starts to slip through his fingers: the car, the house, the American dream. What this guy needs is either a job carrying heavy stuff around or a trip to the movies, and he gets the former via Maggie’s brother Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner), a house-builder in an age of crumbling houses. The five men, Salinger, McClary, Phil Woodward (Cooper), Walker, and Dolan, each represent a level of the economic tier. The script sets about using them and their stations in life to show how every facet of our society can be/has been affected by the faceless bottom-line.

The irony of course is that that bottom-line is not faceless. Stockholders are people too, and when they look at a company they’ve invested in, usually they see it as a source of financial stability and/or growth. Each of these men that are affected by the economic crisis have helped create it. The film is not too clumsy not to acknowledge this, but it does shine a brighter light on those at the top, since they’re the one’s reaping greater rewards. Appropriate, surely. Jack, seemingly the lowest on the food-chain, remarks on it wryly, pointing out that Bobby’s CEO make some exorbitant percentage more in salary than an average worker and asking if Bobby supposes he works that much harder. Rhetorical, for sure, and poignant.

“The Company Men” isn’t especially heavy-handed with the preaching, though. There’s no escaping that this is a film about very specific and current subject matter, but it succeeds because it manages to tell the big story through the smaller stories of these men and their families. None of them (with the fairly obvious exception of Salinger, broadly-drawn and rather unforgivable) are meant as heroes or villains, but they each have a certain quality of innocence that allows an audience to experience their struggle on a level that feels personal. Aside from some affected, cringe-inducing father/son bonding scenes between Bobby Walker and his son, the relationships feel and the tension feels real.

This is in no small part due to the ability of the cast. Not a weak link among them, even Affleck gives a fine performance. He’s at his best, it seems, when he shows us humility and failure. Let’s hope he has the stomach to keep sticking that jaw out for the punch.

Chris Cooper is as cantankerous as ever. Maria Bello shows up as an HR rep with a heavy heart and manages just fine. It’s Tommy Lee Jones who truly carries the weight in this film, though, and he’s as up to the task as ever. His ruefulness shows up in every movement. He is the tell-tale heart of this film, embarrassed but trying to take it like a man.

The Oscar nominations have already been announced, and “The Company Men” is not among the chosen films. This is no great surprise. These days, we’re not too interested in seeing the kind of trouble this film deals with on our movie screens. Unfortunate, really, as this is a film with plenty of heart. Whether audiences will care to fit it into their dwindling budgets remains to be seen.

Directed by: John Wells
Release Date: January 21, 2011
Run Time: 104 Minutes
Country: UK/USA
Rated: R
Distributor: The Weinstein Co.

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