The Company Men (R)
Once in a while, Hollywood puts out a movie meant to mirror the times — and gets it right. That’s the case with The Company Men, the big-screen debut of writer-director John Wells, who produced TV’s ER, The West Wing, Third Watch, and China Beach.
The Company Men tells the current recession’s all-too-familiar story of corporate downsizing. And so what if the characters served with pink slips had enjoyed six-figure incomes and private-jet travel? That’s all part of the 21st-century American corporate way that got us into this mess in the first place. As GTX manufacturing conglomerate executive Gene McClary (played hauntingly by Tommy Lee Jones) bemoans in one of the movie’s more thought-provoking scenes, “We used to make something here, before we got lost in paperwork and cost reports.”
Yup. How many of us know someone who has worked, or works, for a company that has performed round after round of layoffs, not so much because there wasn’t enough work to go around, but to drive stock prices and bonuses at the top? That part of The Company Men will make you mad. The aftermath, which is what the bulk of the movie is about, will make you cry.
And cry is what The Company Men’s central character, Bobby Walker, does, convincingly, when he finally realizes he can no longer keep up his charade of affluence — the Porsche in the garage, daily rounds of golf at the country club, the 5,000-square-foot house — without a paycheck. Ben Affleck does a phenomenal turn as Walker, a married father of two young kids. When he finally wakes up to the fact that a new, equally lush, job isn’t going to materialize out of nowhere, Walker weeps in the arms of his encouraging but pull-no-punches wife (Rosemarie DeWitt). “I’m a 37-year-old unemployed loser,” he wallows. Then he swallows his pride and gets to work, thanks, in part, to his brother-in-law, played convincingly (Boston accent included) by Kevin Costner, a builder who hands Walker a hammer and some nails.
At least Affleck has the benefit of time. His sacked superiors are deep into middle age, and starting over isn’t readily in the cards. McClary, a founder of GTX, has grown disheartened by the corporate world and estranged from the wife who enjoyed the trappings of success a bit too much. And 30-year company veteran Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), seeing the writing on the wall, threatens to power an AK-47 with his anger. He’s ultimately (thank goodness) immobilized by the thought of letting down the wife and college-age daughter he’s devoted to.
Still, it’s never too late to re-examine one’s priorities, and that’s the message that cuts through the grim sobriety of The Company Men. While for some, the film’s final scenes may feel overly simplistic and optimistic, Wells’s powerful script and nuanced direction of his supremely talented cast allow us to come away with the belief that, in the end, it’s people, not things, that matter.