A topical film that grapples (somewhat
aloofly) with the importance of "work" in our daily lives,
The Company Men is reasonably intelligent and well-acted - and it
features Kevin Costner finally pulling off an accent. Writer-director
John Wells tackles the ongoing recession with sensitivity, portraying
three characters (played by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris
Cooper) whose positions within a single large corporation are affected
in differing ways by the company's need to continue providing good quarterly
results to investors amid an ongoing economic crisis. Yet Wells doesn't
quite go far enough; these three characters' identities are very much
bound up in their jobs, and Wells never properly examines the consequences
of self-identifying as a salesman, an executive, or a middle manager
in a changing world that challenges our own ethical and moral standards.
Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a successful sales executive at a large
ship-building corporation headed by Jim Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) and
Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). Unexpectedly finding himself the victim
of down-sizing, Walker has trouble adjusting to unemployment. He doesn't
want to give up his Porsche or his country club membership, stubbornly
believing their symbolic value will help get him a new job. His pragmatic
wife (Rosemarie Dewitt) insists that he find a job - any job - to help
keep their family afloat. So Walker goes to work in construction for
his brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), essentially learning a new
trade from scratch. Meanwhile, his former company continues to fall
apart, with company co-founder McClary and the depressive manager played
by Cooper also losing their jobs.
Wells elicits fine performances from his outstanding cast, who have
numerous Oscars among them. Jones is particularly fine, his face a road
map of heartache and hard living that lends a somber self-awareness
to McClary, who knows only too well that many have suffered at his expense
over his years of hard work and empire-building. Nelson is beefy and
dickish as a cold pragmatist who will do whatever it takes to keep his
company in the black. And Costner strikes the right note as a blue-collar
professional who wryly enjoys the satisfaction of an honest day's work.
The film's plot is a straightforward look at a loss of pride and the
ensuing struggle for redemption, placed in a contemporary, realistic
milieu. When Walker and several former co-workers gather at a placement
agency as they seek employment, the sense of shame that attends a loss
of status and income is palpable. Yet the Affleck character's struggle
is diminished when we see him driving a Porsche, living in a house that's
got to be 3,000 square feet, and playing golf as he sees fit. This could
have been treated as a poignant reminder that many of our larger economic
problems can be attributed to massive consumption and ignorance on an
individual basis, but these scenes are not handled that way. Walker
is simply a prideful man who doesn't want to be stripped of his toys.
And this brings me to what troubles me about The Company Men,
which, as I suggested, is competently made and well-acted. Yet there's
a nagging hollowness within the movie's real, tangible themes. Wells
does not search hard enough for the significance of work in people's
lives. Other than "having a job" as a source of pride and
income, there is not much in the movie that talks substantively as to
what that work really accomplishes beyond its immediate benefit to the
employed. In other words, the questions I would have liked to see asked
include: Why do we work at the jobs we have? Why do we have those jobs
in the first place? These and related questions are exactly the ones
that the newly-unemployed have the opportunity to ask and the present
recession has indeed led many to shift their career tracks entirely.
The conclusion of The Company Men sees Affleck throwing in with
the Jones character as they launch a brand-new enterprise together,
in an attempt at empire-building all over again. The final scenes are
hasty, and I have to assume they were tacked on at the last minute.
This assumption is bolstered by an "alternate ending" included
on the DVD as a special feature. This alternate ending doesn't add different
footage, it just draws the film to a more organic close at an earlier
and more appropriate point. In short, Affleck stays on with Costner's
character, having decided to make a go of it in the construction business.
This ending at least gets within shouting distance of the issues I would
have like to see raised in the film, with Affleck re-assessing his career
and the kind of people he wants to work with. But the ending we have
skirts all of that, making the point that only a legitimate corporate
career can provide Affleck with fulfillment - a depressing prospect,
to be sure, and a low note upon which to conclude the film.
Image and Sound
The Weinstein Company presents The Company Men in a very nice
enhanced transfer. The film's imagery is the product of the always-outstanding
Roger Deakins, who captures the Boston-area locations with an autumnal
chill that is complemented by oppressively bright workplaces of white
walls and sharp edges. The dialogue-driven surround mix is good, although
the drippy music score is a misstep.
An audio commentary with writer-director John Wells is a leisurely
walk through the movie's production history, and he is particularly
illuminating with regard to the research he did in preparing the script.
The aforementioned alternate ending is accompanied by a few
deleted scenes and a short making-of
The Company Men is better than serviceable, but falls short with
regard to asking the real questions that lie behind - or are prompted
by - the present worldwide economic crisis. Excellent performances across
the board add a lot of value to Wells' script, making the feature well
worth viewing. Recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.