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Sometime last year I saw a trailer for The Company Men. All I remember is seeing Ben Affleck being humiliated while attending a feel-good class for the recently unemployed and standing atop a building shouting out a self-help slogan. I knew immediately that seeing that movie was out of the question - most trailers vanquish all interest in movies I might have been curious about. I was therefore surprised to discover that The Company Men is a highly worthy drama with solid performances from actors that know how to project integrity and self-confidence. It also has an unusually intelligent take on the economic collapse of the last few years. It's not a scream against injustice or an indictment of the system (at least not directly) but a halfway reasonable look at how a number of upscale executives react to being ruthlessly downsized. If it's critical, its criticism is well aimed -- not just at the inequity of the corporate world, but the way we expect to live. As a skilled carpenter says in the movie, working overtime on Sunday in an effort to not lose money on a job, "It's a f_____-up world". He says this because a guy who pushes papers in an office earns $80,000 a year, and a year before was making twice that. The Company Men shows that the mid-level executives don't exactly have stress-free lifestyles either, and that their gravy train can come to a sudden halt without prior notice.
At a diversified shipbuilding corporation called GMX, CEO James Salinger (Craig T.Nelson) has his Human Resources hatchet woman Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) cut two divisions out from under VP Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), one of the company's founders and Salinger's one-time best friend. Thousands of employees are fired, along with a long list of salespeople that includes 37-year-old hotshot Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck). Bobby doesn't want anyone to know that he's been laid off and wrongly assumes that he'll be quickly rehired. Bobby's wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) takes on more nursing shifts and tries to make him understand that they'll lose the house and that he needs to economize. Bobby ignores her and is shocked when the only job offers expect him to relocate and take a 50% pay cut. He must eventually swallow his pride and go to work doing manual labor for his brother-in-law Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner), a contractor-carpenter.
Gene McClary has a number of run-ins with James Salinger over another proposed round of layoffs, even as executive salaries are booming and the company is preparing to move to lavish new headquarters. Although Sally Wilcox is Gene's secret girlfriend, she doesn't tell him that GMX's valued executive Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is on the chopping block; when he protests Gene finds that he's been cut loose as well. Gene leaves his wife for Sally. As an upper echelon executive he has millions in stock options and will experience no hardship, but he feels responsible for the company's employees, an emotion not shared by Salinger. Phil Woodward is truly in a bind. An unemployment counselor recommends that he dye his hair and doctor his resume, which negates the experience he's built up over the years. An old friend confirms what Phil already knows -- he's unemployable because he's too old and insufficiently exploitable.
Even as I watched The Company Men, realizing that it is a superior drama about an important issue, I knew why its chances at breakout success were limited: today's filmgoers have zero interest in movies about harsh realities. Indeed, Americans are now so self-directed that few can be bothered to consider the problems of anybody who does not share their exact socio-economic situation. The three main characters of The Company Men are all doing well, but only one is independently wealthy, and that's because he was there on the ground floor, took the risks and was exceedingly fortunate. The others are more precarious than they know. The movie starts with a powerful montage of the fine houses and material goods amassed by these mid-level execs. They buy sports cars, join country clubs and live fairly up to or beyond their spending limit. When the economy goes south and all the corporations start dumping overhead to look good to the stockholders, jobs are lost that will not be replaced. The older and more specialized one is, the tougher it is to get going again. Workers that define themselves through their work, can feel that they've ceased to exist.
Writer-director John Wells builds his characters and their problems in a sane, solid fashion, with a 'critical sympathy'. None of these men ever expected this level of defeat after a lifetime of establishing loyalties to their companies and one another. Bobby Walker is not taken to task for being spoiled and slightly arrogant: show me ten successful businessmen who are not. He knows his business well enough to not be entirely daft for trying to keep up appearances. Bobby has a threshold of humiliation that he desperately needs to avoid, even if the option is remaining in denial: he keeps paying the country club dues when he hasn't money for the mortgage. Phil is in worse shape. He feels he hasn't the option to fail, and has no way to redefine himself. Only Gene is in a position to put his resources where his values are.
I like The Company Men even when it goes slightly soft at the end (and not in a bad way). John Wells' commentary and an alternate ending show us that this final ending is preferable to the even softer original, a father-son bonding scene on a basketball court. I was impressed by the way Kevin Costner's Jack tells Bobby that he'd better take a sales job, because he's a s_____ carpenter -- it reminds me of Lost in America, where Albert Brooks' Ad Man, after proving himself useless in every other function, leaps back into his perfect niche as an insincere glad-hander. Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper and Kevin Costner exude solid masculine qualities from every pore in their bodies; whether winning or losing, it's a pleasure to see these men contending with day to day problems in a worthy film vehicle. I'm also happy to say that I look forward to Ben Affleck performances now -- he seems potentially cut from the same kind of cloth.
The movie introduces many other characters in much smaller roles. Maria Bello's Sally is a bad cookie from the first, and not just because of her crummy job. Gene's wealthy wife has only a few moments, where she shows him the $16,000 table she's just bought, and inquires whether she can use the corporate jet to fly to Palm Beach. We learn very little about Phil Woodward's family except that his daughter goes to Brown and that he can't bear to disappoint her. The standout is Rosemarie DeWitt as Bobby's wife, Maggie. She has the toughest row to hoe, bringing her slightly pig-headed husband around to face fiscal realities. The movie shows how the hardship brings them closer together. Writer Wells doesn't overplay revelations like this: we aren't sold an inverted message that we should all quit our jobs to promote domestic harmony.
The Company Men is a welcome rebuttal to a much-touted 2009 movie by Jason Reitman, the George Clooney vehicle Up in the Air. If you'll recall, that quirky drama was about the emotional troubles of a hatchet man for hire, who flies around the country laying off people for corporations too cowardly to do it themselves. I couldn't believe that Up in the Air expected us to admire this man's skills, and wanted us to consider his personal difficulties as a sweet-talking bad news buffer. Clooney's character reminded me of Melvyn Douglas's speech in Hud, talking about the government vet whose job it is to condemn whole herds of cattle at the first sign of disease. Douglas says, "He's a good man, but he's got a cruddy job." Well, killing sick cows is a hundred times more honorable than the Clooney character's. The Company Men has it right, in that it doesn't defend dispassionate "professionals" like Sally Wilcox and James Salinger.
By the way, Salinger's all-purpose defense for his entire cruddy profession is this: "It's a business we're running, not a charity." Filmmaker John Wells says that came straight from an interview with a C.E.O.. Those words are an appropriate mantra for the business interests that all but run our country now -- if you aren't contributing to our standards, or if you become inconvenient or superfluous, you'll be escorted from the building.
I really recommend The Company Men. I haven't seen another movie take up the same subject with the same level of commitment and intelligence.
Anchor Bay and Weinstein's Blu-ray of The Company Men is a sparkling transfer, shot on film by the great Roger Deakins. The locations in and around Boston are very nicely rendered. The production did not run away to Canada to save money, which for this movie would seem a particularly ironic/dishonest thing to do.
John Wells contributes a thoughtful and informative commentary that to my ears seemed refreshingly ego-free. An EPK-style featurette serves as a making-of docu. Some deleted scenes are included as well as the original alternate Sundance Festival ending, which reshuffles the last five short scenes and ends on the father-son basketball game.
No trailer is present, which is too bad because I'd have liked to see if it was really all that bad or if I was just cranky that evening. Advertising is so important for these films that aren't given the massive marketing push afforded something like this week's saturation item, X-Men Stir-Fry. The situation reminds me of another fine 2010 release, Sony's Get Low. Had I not been turned off by its awful trailer, I'd certainly have seen that movie in a theater. Marketers need to tell us that why their dramatic movies are important, and not pretend that every release is a feel-good comedy. We know better. For The Company Men I'd have pushed spots that stressed the predicaments of the four leading men, fathers and husbands up against the wall and fighting for survival.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Company Men Blu-ray rates:
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