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