Harry Forbes on 'The Company Men'

For anyone still having a hard time grasping the real-life effects of the economic downturn, I can't imagine a better movie than "The Company Men," which I saw this weekend.  The film, by ER's John Wells, follows three men--well played by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper--who lose their jobs in the wake of the Great Recession.  Particularly fine is the way that Affleck's character, like so many men and women who have found pink slips on their desks, have a difficult time facing the fact that their lives have changed utterly.  Harry Forbes reviews it for our online Culture section. 

Anyone who’s ever endured the indignity of job loss and the corresponding loss of self-worth—not to mention a soul-destroying series of dispiriting job interviews and the patronizing attitude of friends, relatives and still-employed former co-workers—will find that “The Company Men” strikes a queasily familiar chord. If ever there was a film reflective of our economically depressed times, this is it.

Ben Affleck is Bobby Walker, a cocky, golf-loving executive salesman in the shipping division of GTX, a Boston-based conglomerate. He’s blithely unconcerned when, one morning, the hushed staff informs him that the H.R. director Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) wants to see him. When he breezily deigns to meet with her, he discovers to his amazement that he’s being laid off, his 12 years of service to the company counting for naught.

The division-wide purge, of which Bobby is merely one casualty, also plunges an aging company executive Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) into deep anxiety about his own future, and profoundly disturbs company co-founder (GTX’s number two man) Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), who has already publicly expressed qualms about the company’s bottom-line tactics.

On the domestic front, Bobby’s sympathetic wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) immediately sees the need to scale back their standard of living, though Bobby remains in denial. But before long, they and their two kids are living with his folks, his golf club membership has been cancelled, and he ultimately must eat the humblest of pies by accepting a construction job from his sardonic and often contemptuous brother-in-law Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner), who has never ceased needling Bobby about his cushy lifestyle. (Costner inhabits his blue-collar character in a superbly unshowy performance.)

Tommy Lee Jones vividly conveys Gene’s palpable unease with the events around him, and his growing wariness about his ostentatiously affluent lifestyle and thoughtlessly materialistic wife. The latter has driven him into the arms of Sally, a down-to-earth companion despite her dubious role as the company’s hatchet woman.

As poignantly embodied by Cooper, Gene is emblematic of a worker of a certain age suddenly forced to lie about his age, dye his hair, fudge the years of his schooling and army service. “You’re pushing 60 and you look like hell,” a former colleague tells him over lunch. Phil’s wife won’t let him home during day to keep up the front with the neighbors. Humiliated and hopeless about the future, he soon turns to drink.

Craig T. Nelson is the smarmy CEO, James Salinger, the film’s outright villain. Once Gene’s partner, school chum and roommate, they built the business together, but Salinger lacks Gene’s conscience. And he interprets Gene’s forthright criticism as disloyalty. Meanwhile, he rakes in an annual salary of $22 million and, oblivious to the shattered lives of his employees, oversees the building of lavish new headquarters for GTX.

Though all this makes for a rather bleak, downbeat story, it’s an uncommonly intelligent one, courtesy of John Wells’s nuanced script. The executive producer of “ER” directs as well (his début) and paces the sober story well, so it is never less than absorbing.

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