The Company Men tells the story of people caught in the economic downturn that began in September of 2008. It’s a timely and well-crafted film, although I suspect the intention was less about thoughtful examination and more about appealing to the masses. Many films are intentionally designed to garner sympathy, but few are this forthcoming about it; scenes and characters are so perfectly in tune with real events that we’re basically required to see things from their point of view, and if we don’t, we might as well move to another planet. I have no doubt that many people will leave the theater feeling as if the film spoke directly to them, that it understood their plight, that it said the things few have been willing to say. It’s a satisfying experience, but keep in mind that satisfaction can be the result of manipulation.
The working characters in this film have built their lives around a Boston-based shipbuilding corporation called GTX. As a result of the bad economy, the company has been downsizing. One of its casualties is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), who had grown accustomed to the Porsche, the golf games, and the expensive suburban house his six-figure income allowed him. His severance package includes temporary placement at a job search center, where he will learn how to improve his resume, listen to motivational speeches, and sit in a cubical all day making calls to companies he feels qualified to work for. Despite these efforts, he’s unwilling to scale back on his lifestyle, for he wants to maintain his image. His wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), lovingly but firmly reminds him that an image is far less important than providing for his family.
Bobby is consistently sneered at by his brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), who owns a small construction company and swears by honest manual labor. He and his crew are building a house, and despite his misgivings, he offers Bobby a job. This means, of course, that Bobby will have to swallow his pride and actually join the working class, which he has always felt was beneath him. With this in mind, it seems clear to me that Jack, while a decent and competent character, is little more than a tool at the mercy of the plot, a way to make Bobby understand and appreciate the value of hard work. I had a much better response to Bobby’s teenage son, Drew (Anthony O’Leary); Bobby’s intention is to set a good example for his son, but it’s ultimately Drew who sets a good example for his father.
Another casualty is Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who quickly learns that few companies are interested in an unemployed executive pushing sixty. It’s strongly suggested that he dye his hair. He’s warned against including jobs prior to the 1990s on his resume, for those are considered ancient history. He’s told to avoid making specific references to Vietnam when listing his military experience. As the months go by, he begins to realize how much his life was defined by his work, which essentially boiled down to making money for GTX. He believed he was valued; he didn’t know his worth was in direct proportion to the status of his company. He learns the hard way that, once you’ve been fired from an executive position, it’s a little too late to discover you’re no good at anything else.
Yet another casualty is Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), who started GTX with James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson). They’re both of a time and place in which corporations served a purpose and its employees were honest and treated with respect. Gene maintains a belief in those ideals. The same cannot be said of James – he believes that companies exist primarily to capitalize on profits, and if that requires many of its employees to lose their jobs, then so be it. Gene is so embroiled in this aspect of the story that I can’t help but wonder why it was deemed necessary to include a subplot with his wife (Patricia Kalember), who he leaves for his mistress, Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), who just happens to be the same woman responsible for firing Bobby.
I responded to these characters, and I certainly responded to the story. Still, The Company Men never quite becomes the illuminating masterpiece it was so desperately wants to be. It deftly addresses current economic issues, but the plot feels manufactured for mass consumption. Perhaps I was hoping for another version of Up in the Air, which was both considerate and heartbreaking in its examination of a man whose life is his job, which is nothing more nor less than relieving other people of their jobs. That movie humanized the economic downturn far more effectively, and it also managed to tell a thoroughly absorbing story. The Company Men is decent overall, but it’s more like wish fulfillment; a story designed with the sole purpose of winning over an audience.
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The Weinstein Company