Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Company Men

THE COMPANY MEN (John Wells, 2010)

The reach of the economic crisis extends even into the executive offices in THE COMPANY MEN. The drama focuses on three high level corporate workers who find themselves unemployed when their company’s stock prices need to be goosed. After all, cutting employees is viewed as the fast track to improving the bottom line.

Sales manager Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) initially refuses to alter his ways after losing his six-figure job. He shows up at the outplacement services office confident that, unlike his fellow white collar cubicle companions, he’ll find new work in no time. As the weeks stretch into months, Bobby grudgingly accepts the reality of his situation. Not only is his family’s lifestyle and home too extravagant to maintain while he searches for a job, but they likely won’t be able to keep up with their previous standard when he does get one.

Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is a company lifer who started on the factory floor and worked his way into a major position. Being laid off hits him extremely hard. Then he’s walloped with the fact that at sixty his age and hard-living appearance are liabilities that may keep him from returning to anything close to what he’s used to doing.

Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) was in on the ground floor when starting the then-shipbuilding company with his friend, the current CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), yet he’s considered expendable too.

THE COMPANY MEN means well in addressing the hardships that come with losing one’s job, particularly in this economy. There’s an air of resignation hanging over the film as these men confront their powerlessness and inadequacies upon being deprived of something that has defined who they are.

The most poignant moments aren’t visible in outbursts but in how they carry on as though still employed so that family, friends, and neighbors don’t pity them. For Bobby the greatest pains are in realizing that his blue collar brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) is kicking him some extra money in his paycheck and that his son returned a gift because he knows the family can’t afford it.

Writer-director John Wells captures these details well. From the embarrassment of knowing one can’t provide for those you love and the indignity of learning that one’s skill set isn’t unique or in high demand, THE COMPANY MEN observes how unemployment can bring death by a thousand small cuts rather than one major one.

Wells displays a light touch in depicting the adversities these men face. He doesn’t linger on their shame and anger but lets such feelings seep into the performances. Wells also doesn’t hammer his larger points. When Bobby’s brother-in-law asks him if the CEO works hard enough to deserve to be compensated seven hundred times more than the guys on the low end, it calls out the gross inequity of business today without making a scene. Gene mourns the decline of manufacturing and bristles at the blind adherence to Wall Street’s lead.

Nevertheless, THE COMPANY MEN could stand to express a little righteous fury. The film is often so low key that it ignores the urgency pressing down on Bobby and Phil. While the point of telling this story through three main characters is to examine the differences in their circumstances, the impact is often diluted. The loss of status and security for the wealthy is a reasonable premise for a film, but concentrating on individuals pulling in stacks of money like these people once made weakens the audience’s emotional connection in this instance. It’s harder to feel sorry for those who now can’t afford country club dues or biding time until stock options can be cashed in.

Grade: C

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