Directed By: John Wells
Written By: John Wells
Produced By: Claire Rudnick Polstein, Paula Weinstein, John Wells
Cast: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Maria Bello, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kevin Costner
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 109 minutes
Release Date: January 21, 2011
Review Date: January 21, 2011
The Company Men shares a number of common problems with another uneven, heavy-handed film about our country’s economic collapse: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. It forces us to spend most of our time with a lead character, Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), with whom it’s nearly impossible to empathize. It fills out its story with a large, spectacular ensemble of actors with thankless roles representing archetypes — not fully formed characters — to address each facet of What’s Wrong With Corporate America. Then, it limps through a handful of resonant moments (and more than a handful of mediocre moments) toward an unearned happy ending without ever digging deeply enough into What Went Wrong in the first place.
Bobby works as a regional sales manager for GTX, a vast transportation company that started as a tiny shipbuilding firm and steadily grew into one of the largest transportation manufacturers in the world. Then, the economy collapsed, and suddenly layoffs start to happen. Bobby’s head is among the first on the chopping block, because he sells ships, and GTX has decided to get out of the shipbuilding end of the business — not because it’s unprofitable, but because it’s not profitable enough.
The bulk of the story focuses on Bobby’s efforts to find a new job, and the effects of his unemployment on his lifestyle and marriage to working-class, salt-of-the-earth Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt). Unfortunately, Bobby’s an infuriating character. Our introduction to him comes as he strolls, smiling, through his office, not noticing the grim tone or empty desks, and enters a boardroom bragging about the golf game he shot at the country club earlier that morning. Later, he strolls confidently into an executive employment agency, refusing to participate in meetings and seminars, insisting it’ll only take him a few days to find a job.
It gets us off on the wrong foot, because Bobby seems like kind of a jackass, but it’d feel a whole lot better to watch him transform into a better person over time. He doesn’t, though. He adjusts to the unemployed life, but his refusal to give up the country club membership, Porsche, or $1.5 million McMansion leads to numerous arguments with his wife, and we’re supposed to sympathize with Bobby’s stubborn refusal to give up his lifestyle or settle for anything less than what he used to earn. As the lifestyle is taken from him by force — Porsche repossessed, house foreclosed on, club membership revoked — he finally swallows his pride and takes a demeaning job putting up drywall with Maggie’s brother, Jack (Kevin Costner, sporting the same awful Boston accent he had in Thirteen Days).
I give producer/writer/director John Wells (best known for his TV work, including ER and The West Wing) some credit for not giving The Company Men a treacly message about grueling manual labor and a union card being the key to happiness, but that credit is undermined by the fact that he never really digs in to the Bobby character — without a clear understanding of what’s motivating his obsession with material wealth and his confused notions of “success,” it’s hard to rally behind him, and the film flatlines. He always seems to be on the losing end of arguments with Maggie, because she’s practical and reasonable, and he’s absurdly unrealistic. Bobby does have one great scene, though. After months of failure, a headhunter offers him a job opportunity. He immediately flies out to Chicago for the interview — only to discover he came on the wrong day, and the headhunter is out of town. The surge of hopefulness followed by crushing defeat are palpable and well-played by Affleck, giving Bobby the only moment where he feels genuinely, poignantly human.
Hey, isn’t this supposed to be a big ensemble picture? What about Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), and Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello)? The sad truth is, they don’t figure into the story much, except as chess pieces to move the plot toward its happy ending. Gene spends the first half of the film as GTX’s moral voice of reason. As company founder James Salinger’s (Craig T. Nelson) right-hand man and best friend, Gene has no fears about speaking his mind in the face of bad decisions. Instead of laying people off, he suggests selling their shipbuilding division. Salinger refuses. Instead of building a new, expensive office building for executives, why not sell the building and keep the employees? Salinger refuses. Gene pines for days of yore, when Salinger risked everything on a company he hoped would succeed, and Gene worked for him because he believed in the company Salinger wanted to build. Greed and stockholders have overtaken Salinger, though, and the company bears no resemblance to its original incarnation.
What are we to make of the fact that ethically righteous Gene leaves his wife to sleep with Sally, the HR shark who coldly chooses who will stay and who will go (including, eventually, Gene)? Is this shading to the character, or is it a reason to give Sally more of a role in the film, so we can get a glimpse of the HR decisions at play? Unfortunately, it feels more like the latter. Gene and Sally have no common ground, Jones and Bello have no chemistry, so the whole thing is just sort off-putting, weird, and unnecessary.
Phil is Gene’s friend and most prominent ass-kisser, so it’s not a surprise that Gene and Phil get laid off on the same day — in the midst of a company Christmas party, because GTX (and Sally) is that dastardly. Unlike Gene (who made a lot more and saved well), Phil needs to keep working. In an awkward but effective scene, Phil sits down with an employment counselor who does everything short of saying, “Be 30 years younger” — dye his hair, don’t put anything on his resume more than 10 years old, and don’t list how long he spent at each company. Anything that gives away his true age is a killer, because nobody wants to hire a guy in his early 60s.
Again, though, Phil’s not a character. He’s there merely to show how the cold corporate world treats the elder statesmen of the working class. Phil doesn’t get a retirement, and he doesn’t get a new job. He gets screwed. That’s the movie’s primary theme — how corporations screw employees to appease an already wealthy board of directors looking to increase their profits by trimming “dead weight” — and it tries to take a complex look at that theme, but it falls short. It’s a Frank Capra world where corporations are pure, malevolent evil and even the most repugnant of the unemployed is a hero by virtue of the fact that he loved making a lot of money to do something ambiguous that he may or may not have enjoyed.
It’s too bad, because everyone in this movie gives it their all. They’re much more committed to the characters than Wells is. His script never overcomes its plot-first mentality, so none of the characters — not even Bobby, with whom we spend the majority of our time — come into their own, no matter how much life the actors breathe into them. They’re all just chess pieces — really good, handcrafted ones, though — making the expected moves on a well-worn board. I’m sure a great movie about the economic collapse will be made, but it hasn’t yet.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.