The Company Men ✮✮✮
SLINGING STONES AT GLASS TOWERS
by Glenn Lovell
Three Bostonians on various rungs of the corporate ladder are downsized in “The Company Men,” an engrossing, if uneven, ensemble drama featuring strong performances by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and especially Chris Cooper as the most desperate of the trio.
Facing a different kind of un(der)employment, Kevin Costner wrestles with a dour supporting turn as Affleck’s blue-collar brother-in-law. The anger that Costner exudes may have more to do with having to take this role than the role itself.
How this film is received ‒ as timely comment on stagnant employment or as been-there-heard-that flashback? ‒ will depend on where you stand on the current administration’s weekly reassurance that “We’ve finally rounded the corner.”
The references to Goldman Sachs and other financial scandals places this film in the not-too-distant past. Which hurts because it adds a safe remove, a distancing haze. At times it feels like we’ve plunked down in a family drama set in the 1950s, either “Revolutionary Road” or, reaching further back, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” with Gregory Peck caught in a different kind of job-vs.-family quandary.
Things are looking bad at Global Transportation Systems, particularly its shipbuilding division. The company, announces CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), is facing a hostile takeover because of rumblings on Wall Street. To save GTX from corporate raiders and boost the stock, thousands are shown the door, including hotshot regional sales director Bobby Walker (Affleck). Feeling their pain but glad to have dodged the first round of pink slips, Phil Woodward (Cooper) and v-p Gene McClary are soon to follow. McClary ‒ who co-founded the company and has always championed the little guy ‒ runs afoul of Salinger for spouting off in board meetings.
Hard times call for unpleasant choices, but Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), the HR director, seems to relish her job. Sally moonlights as McClary’s “Tuesday lunch” mistress, which makes for interesting pillow talk.
Written and directed by John Wells ‒ who heretofore has specialized in ensemble TV (“E.R.,” “The West Wing”) ‒ “The Company Men” focuses mainly on the Walkers’ spiraling home life. Three months after losing his job, Bobby remains unemployed. Almost as quickly as wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) mouths the f-word (as in foreclosure), the family loses its home, club membership, sports car and, the final indignation, must move in with Bobby’s parents.
“I’m a 37-year-old unemployed loser who can’t support his family,” wails Bobby. “When did it all go to shit?”
The answer is, it went bad before it went bad. Wells shows how each family ‒ like George W.’s America ‒ had long been living beyond its means. When McClary’s wife is told of the corporate bloodbath, she responds by asking for the corporate jet to fly to Palm Beach for a weekend shopping spree with the girls.
There is much that is unpleasant that happens over the course of this movie ‒ the cattle-call interviews for half salary, for starters ‒ but in the end it comes down to silver linings. For two of the three men made redundant, starting over proves an opportunity to reconnect with their families and blue-collar roots. In fact, there’s a moment, just a moment, when Bobby considers swapping the corporate rat race for an apprenticeship in carpentry.
It’s here, in these neatly resolved subplots, that Wells betrays his TV roots. There are a few too many contrivances to suit my taste. And the Pollyanna-ish ending is hardly the stuff of Arthur Miller or, for that matter, David Mamet, whose “Glengarry Glen Ross” nailed the desperation of middle-aged men scrambling for a morsel of the American Dream.
Still, there’s much to recommend this film. For starters, it was shot on location by Roger Deakins, the best cinematographer going, and it has a brusque, russet feel that mirrors Boston in winter. Add to this the measured-to-outraged performances by Jones and Cooper and you’ve got an early contender for best ensemble piece of the year. Cooper, struggling to maintain his dignity as a “Glee”-chirpy placement person suggests dyeing his hair and shaving years off his resume, leaves an indelible impression. We fear and feel for this man. To what lengths will he go to sate his frustration? Murder? Suicide? Lobbing stones at the old corporate tower?
THE COMPANY MEN. ✮✮✮ With Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Craig T. Nelson, Maria Bello. Directed, written by John Wells. 115 min. Rated R (for profanity and brief nudity).