The Company Men


The Company Men

The future of our prosperity looks grim and grey when you're laid off.

(2010) Drama (Weinstein) Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Maria Bello, Craig T. Nelson, Patricia Kalember, Eamonn Walker, Anthony O’Leary, Angela Rezza. Directed by John Wells

Nowhere else like America do people identify themselves so closely by their careers. In many ways, our jobs are an extremely important element of our self-identity. When that part of ourselves is assaulted by a layoff, it weighs heavily on our psyche, sometimes threatening to destroy the essence of who we are.

GTX is a Boston-based company that started out as shipbuilders before diversifying into other transportation-based industries and at last into non-related industries like health care. However, given the recent economic meltdown and the accompanying downturn in jobs, things are changing for the company’s bottom line and in order to avoid a hostile takeover, the executives of the company – led by CEO James Salinger (Nelson) decide on massive layoffs to try and bring the stock price up.

Bobby Walker (Affleck) is one of the better salesmen for the company but as the shipbuilding division is being gutted he is one of the first to go. At first, he’s pretty breezy about it. Even though he’s driving a Porsche and has a huge mortgage on a house that’s way too big without his salary coming in, he figures it’ll only be a few days and he’ll be working again. He acts as if there is nothing wrong and in fact tells nobody but his wife about his situation, figuring that by the time they suspect anything has changed he’ll have a new business card in his pocket.

His wife Maggie (DeWitt) isn’t so sure. She sees the bills, she knows the score and begs Bobby to economize but he refuses at every turn. His pride won’t allow him to admit that they’re in financial trouble. As days become months, the word gets out that Bobby was laid off (GTX’s layoffs were big news in Boston and most people are aware that the company Bobby worked for had undergone massive cutbacks). When his pragmatic brother-in-law Jack (Costner) offers him work in his home refurbishing business, Bobby turns it down scornfully, which prompts Jack to label him a…well, a part of the male reproductive system.

Phil Woodward (Cooper) is in a whole different predicament. He’s pushing 60 and has worked at GTX essentially his entire life. Now he’s close to retirement and nobody will hire him. He has no future and only an alcoholic wife for comfort. He faces an uncertain future; not able to retire comfortably and no way to resume the high salary he had been pulling, competing with much younger men willing to work for less for the jobs that are available.

Gene McClary (Jones) helped build GTX along with Salinger, his best friend. He has been content to be in charge of the shipping division while Salinger ran the whole she-bang. However, Gene is becoming more and more distressed with what he perceives to be a focus on profit over people. He’s more or less old school, all about building things that are tangible and standing behind the people who build them. He is horrified that the layoffs have nothing to do with production or performance but profit.

This doesn’t prevent him from having an affair with Sally Wilcox (Bello), the human resources executive who has been tasked with giving the bad news to the affected employees. Gene’s wife (Kalember) is distant and all about the perks, like having a company jet fly her out to a spa vacation.

That disappears, particularly when Gene gets the axe himself after failing to support Salinger in the board room. The lives of all these men suddenly need re-evaluation and all of them go at it in different ways; some constructive, others less so. One thing’s for sure – when one is faced with the loss of a significant amount of their identity, it changes the game entirely.

Wells has crafted a simple but timely story that focuses mostly on Affleck’s Bobby Walker character but also gives a goodly amount of time to Cooper and Jones. It’s an impressive cast; even those in smaller roles pull off some pretty impressive work.

In particular I was impressed with Chris Cooper’s performance. If the movie had been released last year when it was originally scheduled to be, he might have merited serious consideration for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Unfortunately, the suits at Weinstein inexplicably decided to push the movie into a kiss-of-death January release, insuring that this would get no Oscar consideration whatsoever next year or any other year for that matter. That’s a shame, because the movie could have used some given the dearth of publicity the movie got.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins helps the picture in a big way, making the corporate offices look faceless and sterile, while taking wide vistas of grey, cold shipyards and blue, sunny suburbs; his work is subtle but goes a long way to setting the emotional tone of the movie throughout.

This isn’t what you’d call the feel-good movie of the year, nor is it the feel-bad movie of the year either – it is simply a rational and sensitive treatment of our own tendencies to be a job-driven society, and how the effects of corporate profiteering further erode American confidence. Perhaps that’s why the executives at Weinstein chose to bounce it around the schedule for over a year before finally giving it a limited release in one of the worst movie-going periods of the year – they may have thought the film hits too close to home for most. 

It’s easy to pat yourself on the back when there are plenty of jobs and lots of opportunities, but as companies streamline and downsize, America doesn’t look quite so number one anymore. While I found the ending to be a bit pat and Hollywood-esque, I don’t mind the concept of the real toll of the economic downturn, the one that they don’t talk about on Fox News. The human cost is what I’m talking about, and that’s a payment that while it can’t be measured quantitatively, will nonetheless be the measure of our nations’ worth when all is said and done.

REASONS TO GO: Very timely subject matter that explores the topic in a sensitive and intelligent way. Terrific acting, particularly from Jones and Cooper.

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat too close to home for a lot of people. Ending not terribly realistic.  

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be rough and there’s a scene of brief nudity.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is director John Wells’ first feature film. Previously he is best known for his work as in television as a writer/director and creator of shows like “E.R.,” “China Beach” and “The West Wing.”

HOME OR THEATER: Although I think it deserves to be seen, it works just as well on home video as it does in a big theater.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: The Eagle