Up the Creek Without a Paycheck: The Company Men Paints a Moving, Nuanced Picture of Life After Layoffs

Ostriches with heads buried in the sand, or even moviegoers seeking diversionary entertainment stripped of all burdensome snags such as thought-provoking issues about the way we live now, be warned in advance: The Company Men is a timely, intelligently written, beautifully acted film of great sensitivity and wisdom about corporate downsizing that will make you think. It’s not your grandfather’s Oldsmobile, but it does make you wonder about the meaning of the word “progress.” In my father’s day, people were proud of where they worked, and there were rewards for loyalty and longevity. Now the job market is ruled by companies that care more about their stockholders than the dignity, respect and self-esteem of their employees. With unemployment figures rising, news travels fast. People from every socioeconomic background are finding themselves stranded without evidence of prior achievements in their chosen fields of experience. There is no such thing as job security anymore, and yesterday’s corporate structure is today’s personnel-office graveyard.

The Company Men is the unpleasant but deeply poignant story of three successful corporate executives (Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper) in a Boston shipping and manufacturing conglomerate with 60,000 people on the payroll who suddenly find themselves sacked–victims of the economic recession. After a money-saving bloodbath that reaches every level of the company, Bobby Walker (Affleck), a 12-year transportation exec on his way to becoming a CEO, loses more than his job. With a beautiful wife, two kids, two cars and a hefty mortgage on a great house in the suburbs filled with every accessory from the pages of Architectural Digest, Bobby enters the stages of denial, anger and false confidence, feeling emasculated and finally defeated.

Gene McClary (Jones), the No. 2 man in power, is doubly humiliated because he founded the company and now he’s been undermined, betrayed and lied to by the CEO (Craig T. Nelson), who was also his best friend and former college roommate. Equally embarrassing is the fact that the sexy corporate vampire who fired him (a hardball performance by tough, curvaceous Maria Bello) is also the woman he’s been committing adultery with. Gene stands to make a lot of money from stock options, but he cares more about the loss of antiquated values like friendship, building something together, development and growth, being part of a “business community.” Co-worker Phil Woodward (Cooper), the oldest of them all, discovers his gray hair, experience and service as a war hero in Vietnam have no merit in today’s unemployment lines. He is considered redundant baggage. One of the saddest lines in the film is when he says, “My life ended and nobody noticed.”