|Director: John Wells
|Screenplay: John Wells
|Stars: Tommy Lee Jones (Gene McClary), Ben Affleck (Bobby Walker), Chris Cooper (Phil Woodward), Maria Bello (Sally Wilcox), Rosemarie DeWitt (Maggie Walker), Kevin Costner (Jack Dolan), Craig T. Nelson (James Salinger), Eamonn Walker (Danny Mills)
|MPAA Rating: R
|Year of Release: 2010
In a happenstance that was entirely unintended, I watched John Wells’s The Company Men right after revisiting Herbert Ross’s The Secret of the My Success (1986). Wells’s film, which intertwines the stories of three downsized corporate executives and feels ripped from all the recent headlines about the economic downturn, plays in a stark contrast to Ross’s plucky Reagan-era comedy, which stars Michael J. Fox as a newly minted college grad who makes it in the big-bad world of New York business by sheer force of will, earning a paycheck in the mailroom while also pretending to be a newly hired executive.
In both films, the corporate world is a den of sharks, but while The Secret of My Success is heartening in its suggestion that tenacity and good ideas will eventually win out in the end, The Company Men takes the more sober view that business is about one thing and one thing only, and that is making money. While the film is primarily a ground-level examination of how men whose identities are completely wrapped up in their business profession cope with the sudden loss of those identities, it is also an elegy for a different time in American business, when industry and manufacturing turned out tangible, usable products, rather than just bottom lines and rising stock prices. The film’s fictional Boston company GTX ostensibly makes ships, but there is infinitely more discussion of stock prices, share holders, and aggressive mergers. The only thing we ever see under construction is the company’s lavish new office building.
Making his feature film writing and directing debut, Wells, whose previous experience was primarily in producing and directing television shows like ER and The West Wing, takes a divided approach to his vast subject matter, focusing on three primary characters who represent different facets of contemporary corporate life. All three of these characters are defined by their jobs--it is who they are--and to be fired (or “laid off,” or “downsized,” or “let go”) means they lose some sense of themselves. In a very real way, the film shows how the American man’s value is relentlessly intertwined with his profession and subsequent earning potential, and to lose the latter means to lose the former (in this respect, as the title suggests, this is a particularly male-centric film, and most of the female characters take a back seat to the male characters’ emasculation).
At one end we have Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a young, cocky vice president of sales who drives a Porsche, spends many of his mornings improving his golf handicap, and lives in a suburban McMansion with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and two children. We don’t have enough time to loathe Bobby’s self-centered life of conspicuous consumption because he is fired in the film’s first scene by the company’s icy hatchet woman, Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), not because of his job performance, but because of a recent merger that resulted in “redundancies.” Before he knows it, Bobby is routed to a humiliating outplacement office where he spends his days along with other downsized workers tweaking his resume and trying desperately to land another job.
If Bobby has it bad, then Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) has it worse. A military veteran who worked his way up to the executive office from the factory floor, Phil’s decades of hard work and dedication to the company mean exactly nothing when he is let go, cut adrift in a world of younger, hungrier executives willing to work for less money (in one of the film’s most disillusioning moments, we see him going to an interview and being put in a hallway with more than a dozen other interchangeable young men in matching suits and despondent facial expressions). Gray and pushing 60, Phil knows that he is all but unhirable, even if he follows the sage advice of dying his hair and cutting everything off his resume that occurred prior to 1990. Bobby’s predicament is a shock to his system, but his relative youth gives him an edge in the job market as long as his ego doesn’t keep him from realizing his potential; as Phil recognizes all too well, no one wants to hire a man of his age and experience because he would be too expensive, and the real tragedy is that, unlike so many others, he genuinely earned his place at the table. The only thing more heart-rending than his sense of anxiety at potentially being fired is the shame he feels once he has been.
The third point in the triangle is Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), who helped start the company with its CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson). Because Salinger is stronger, tougher, and, most importantly, more ruthless, he has risen to the very top while Gene has remained his loyal, but still vocal second-in-command, unafraid to voice his concerns about the moral quagmire of firing good people for the sake of raising the stock price a few pennies. Salinger is the king shark, pulling in tens of millions of dollars a year and not batting an eye about the real, personal effects of his corporate strategies. Gene, who is essentially the film’s moral voice, is disgusted and pays the ultimate price for making his voice heard, lifelong friendship be damned.
Watching these three men attempt to find their way in the world without their corporate identities to hold them aloft is portrayed as a kind of tragedy, not because Wells wants to lionize their place in the business world, but rather because their lives had become so consumed with their work. Each man lashes out in his own way, particularly Bobby, who refuses to give up his lifestyle even as his savings are drained after months of unemployment. Reality sets in when he has to sell his house and Porsche, move his family in with his parents, and take a job with his brother-in-law Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner), who owns a small construction company. The tension between the white-collar Bobby and the blue-collar Jack is explicit from the get-go, but Wells doesn’t take the easy route of demonizing one side while lionizing the other. Costner’s performance as Jack has a bitter edge to it that matches Bobby’s anger; he may be right about his brother-in-law’s snobbish sense of privilege, but his own proclivity for touting his working-class heroism is its own form of snobbery, and one of the film’s real pleasures is watching the two men find some kind of common ground as human beings.
Not all parts of The Company Men work, perhaps because chunks of it were left on the cutting room floor. There are some subplots that feel strangely truncated, particularly an affair between Gene and Sally--the moral voice and the hatchet woman. How and why they wound up in bed together is anyone’s guess, as is its relation to the rest of the story. Yet, even with that and a few other loose ends, the film has a stinging sense of immediacy and a strong sense of narrative momentum that keeps the multiple stories in balance, as well as judiciously managing sympathy for characters who are usually seen as villains during economic hard times. The performances are fine all around, particularly in the way the different actors manifest their impotent sense of anger. That some of the stories end tragically while others offer the potential for new beginnings is only appropriate, as The Company Men, for all of its harsh truths about the ugly nature of modern American business, is not designed to drown us in loss and despair, even as it makes us acutely aware that certain values like loyalty and decency and fairness are quickly becoming endangered species in the corporate depths.
|The Company Men Blu-Ray|
English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
Audio commentary by writer/director John Wells
“Making The Company Men” featurette
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Entertainment|
|Release Date||June 7, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The Company Men’s 1080p presentations looks solid throughout. As befitting a new film, the image is sharp and clear, with excellent detail in both close-ups and long shots. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins’ ’Scope compositions are presented with a well-rendered color palette that extends from the leafy greens of suburban Boston in the spring to the nearly monochromatic pallor of the world of cubicles. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack is likewise solid, with clear dialogue in the front soundstage and a moderate, but effective use of the surround channels to immerse us in the office environments and give the musical score room to work.
|Writer/director John Welles provides an interesting, lucid audio commentary that certainly adds to one’s appreciation of the film, particularly when you realize that he first wrote it seven years ago and continually retooled and updated parts of it to keep it as contemporary as possible. Also includes is the 15-minute “Making The Company Men” featurette, which includes interviews with Wells and most of the cast members, including Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Maria Bello, and Rosemarie Dewitt. In addition to an alternate ending, which is basically a shortened and re-ordered version of the theatrical ending, there are also six deleted scenes, although I suspect more could have been culled from the cutting room floor.
Overall Rating: (3)
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