Director/Writer: John Wells
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Starring: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Rosemarie DeWitt
Studio/Runtime: The Weinstein Company/109 min.
Right now in America there’s perhaps no subject more relevant than the recession, hammering down on everyone and everything in sight with few signs of relenting. Instead of pointing fingers, The Company Men is an attempt to personalize its effects, showing how they seep through various lives in a small community. Central to its story is the company GTX, where all of the protagonists and the antagonist, work at the film’s beginning. That only lasts a few moments, though, as Bobby (Ben Affleck) is soon laid off, leaving his boss and mentor Gene (Tommy Lee Jones) wondering how this could happen and their friend Phil (Chris Cooper) wondering if he’s next. It’s all a scheme to keep stock prices rising at the expense of people, says Company Men’s simplistic analysis, and the families of those axed by GTX are left hoping that somehow they’ll fall on their feet.
Company Men’s intentions are certainly altruistic, but Affleck’s character in particular, whose story is far and away the most prominent, keeps us from real empathy—an almost impressive feat considering how unfortunate his situation is. He’s egotistical, dismissive of others, and seemingly pretty dumb. How intentional any of this is in Affleck’s performance is hard to say, but his refusal to take well-paying jobs because their salaries are less than $100,000 makes him impossible to relate to. Jones and Cooper are both talented actors who deliver stirring performances, giving Company Men the pathos it needs, but they seem to be of little interest to first time writer/director John Wells.
More obnoxious than even Affleck’s character is the sheer condescension Company Men has towards blue-collar work. For most of the picture these jobs are portrayed as a fate worse than death, where losing your house’s mortgage and jeopardizing your family’s future is better than a few hours of manual labor. Then in its third act Company Men tells us that its characters were wrong, and blue collar workers are shown to be laughably perfect people in contrast to the slime of corporate America. No room is left for nuance—or for that matter realism—which is especially grating since the sad truth off this recession is that blue collar workers are left in a far worse position than upper-class desk jockeys.
Rather than showing us an empathetic portrait of what it’s like to live through such a hard time in America, Company Men shows us a series of rich, white men suffering through problems of their own creation. It’s slickly shot and for the most part well-acted, with memorable sequences and some sparkling dialogue, but the film is ultimately pretty self-content and soulless. The picture ends on a note of pure Hollywood optimism that tells us not to worry, the upper class will land on their feet; but for those of us who aren’t driving Porsches to our McMansions, that response to the recession isn’t just facile, it’s kind of insulting.