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

The Company Men does a piercing job of making you feel the dehumanizing effects that losing a job can have on grown men, but it’s more truthful and devastating than that. It explores the myriad ways good people find the strength to pick up the pieces and recalibrate priorities when they get the wind knocked out of their sails, when they lose the things–cars, appliances, tools, charge accounts, technological gadgets, gym memberships, the stuff–that define their lives. This theme is cut from the same bolt of cloth as the punchier, more entertaining Up in the Air, but The Company Men shows the more brutal effects of downsizing in a cruel business world run by greed and profit losses. It’s happening to thousands of people every week (there’s an interesting long shot of Tommy Lee Jones in a glass window on the executive floor gazing down on the parking lot as various employees from every rung on the company ladder carry out potted plants, family photos and other office contents in cardboard boxes). The film explores the desperate phases men in their 60s go through to make ends meet while keeping up appearances, the relationships with their confused families, the motivational speakers who take their money to teach them how to get their enthusiasm back–always fearing there is somebody younger waiting in the wings with no tuitions or house payments, willing to work for less money and more hours. After months of false promises, Bobby goes from a top managerial position to selling his Porsche, moving his family into his parents’ house and working for his blue-collar brother-in-law (a pluperfect Kevin Costner, replete with Boston accent) in the construction business. Phil grows tired of dyeing his hair to get rid of the gray, leaving everything prior to 1990 off his résumé and staying away from home until after 6 p.m. because his wife doesn’t want the neighbors to know he was fired. It’s a sad thing when life passes you by and you can’t afford to keep it going.

It’s Tommy Lee Jones, with the verve and determination to start over showing visibly in his eyes and jaw, who saves the day in a way I will not give away. No spoilers here, but just rest assured the film ends on an uplifting note, demonstrating the undefeatable human spirit in ways that will make you cheer. Writer-director John Wells proved himself as a man of quality and taste on television, raising the bar by creating ER, but a movie as dynamic and compelling and relentlessly gripping as The Company Men is an absolute triumph for a feature-film debut. It’s a marvelous picture, a perfect mirror to today’s corporate snake pit, where people are just figures on a balance sheet, and to the people we observe daily, severed from their jobs for no reason and drifting into a bleak future–but with a hopeful, promising and responsible resolution that did not seem to me like a Hollywood cop-out at all. Enhanced by superb writing and direction and nuanced performances by an ensemble of great actors, and enough take-home food for thought to keep the mind and senses totally focused from start to finish, The Company Men is pretty damn close to as good as it gets in a disappointing year at the movies.

rreed@observer.com

 

 

THE COMPANY MEN
Running time 113 minutes
Written and directed by John Wells
Starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner

3.5/4