Watching John Wells’s The Company Men, I couldn’t help but recall the emergence of the faceless proletariat drones from their subterranean prison in Fritz Lang’s silent-film classic Metropolis from 1927. True, the systems employing the workers depicted in the two films are superficially quite different. On the one hand, few films seem a more scathing commentary on the evils of communism than Metropolis, with its critique of the expendability of the masses employed by a city ruler. On the other, the Global Transportation Systems (or GTX) executives in The Company Men would probably be viewed by many Americans as ruggedly individualistic, hard-working capitalists who have deservedly eaten their slice of the American pie. However, the end results of the economic philosophies underlying the two films are not so dissimilar. Slaves towing the corporate line are just as expendable (and faceless) as slaves toiling for a commonwealth.
This is an ugly truth that the trio of corporate executives in The Company Men—Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck: Smokin’ Aces), Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper: Capote, American Beauty), and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones: Hope Springs)—are rudely confronted with when their positions are terminated in a corporate downsizing. From this central plot premise emerges a poignant, albeit somewhat clichéd, examination of their fractured lives in the wake of the crisis. Though at times The Company Men sags under the weightiness of self-righteous fingerpointing at the culprits of the recent economic recession, it ultimately succeeds in painting a brutally honest picture of the ever-increasing ruthlessness at the top of the corporate ladder—as well as of the personal and financial struggles that beset the three victims.
The drama initially focuses on Bobby Walker, the youngest of the three GTX execs and the first to get axed. He arrives at a department meeting one morning tossing out smug and nonchalant banter about his golf score. The angst written on the faces of the other meeting attendees jolts him back to reality. He’s informed that the human resources manager, Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), has asked to see him—what could she want, he wonders. Almost immediately upon his entering the conference room to find out, a pricky guy from legal starts rattling off severance negotations while Sally fidgets nervously in the seat next to him. Bobby’s reaction is, well, typical of that of most characters played by Ben Affleck. He proceeds to swear at Sally, looks teary-eyed, and stomps off. Later on, we see that faced with the financial ruin of his family, all he can think about is losing his beloved Porsche or being humiliated in front of his country club cronies for failing to pay his membership dues. Yes, the role was well written for Affleck; it just raises the question of whether any role should be written with a no-talent douchebag in mind.
Notwithstanding the shallowness of Affleck and the character he portrays, Cooper’s and Jones’s nuanced and mature performances save the film from mediocrity. As Phil Woodward, Cooper is particularly pitiable. Phil initially seems the perfect example of a disgruntled employee. As the downsizing rumors begin to spread, he vows to return to the office with an AK47 if he’s canned. Yet when the day of reckoning finally arrives, we see that he’s only a pathetic, broken-down old man who would never contemplate violence—at least not against others. Unlike Bobby, he has more important things to be distressed about than maintaining the façade of his suburban life and the ephemeral pleasures of materialism. The truth he has to face is that when a corporation spits you out on the street at 60, you generally have two choices—retirement or death—and the former isn’t an option for him given his financial situation. Going on interview after interview, he comes to the sobering realization that it’s no use trying to compete in the market against more malleable (not to mention cheaper) twenty-somethings.
Gene McClary’s situation at GTX is different from that of the other members of the triumvirate; he’s been CEO Jim Salinger’s (Craig Nelson) right-hand man since the company’s inception. You’d think, therefore, that he’d also be Salinger’s most loyal toady. Unlike his boss, however, he hasn’t lost his sense of ethics and justice. He still looks back with fondness at the days of camaraderie with Salinger, who used to be at least somewhat human before the days of his multimillion-dollar compensation packages and lavish spending. Hearing Salinger’s spiel about how they need to cut scores of workers to maximize share price and please the stockholders, Gene merely raises a jaded eyebrow and suggests making budget cuts in other areas. But the narcissistic Salinger is deaf to these entreaties. Gene’s attitude toward what his company has become is summed up in his response to one of Salinger’s glib advisers who points out that downsizing isn’t breaking any laws. “I thought we were trying for a higher standard than that,” he replies.
That higher standard is the entrepreneurial spirit in which GTX was founded. Bobby discovers this spirit when, unable to find work, he grudgingly accepts a position in drywall construction offered by his wife’s brother (a role played in a convincingly gritty manner by Kevin Costner). He gradually comes to learn what Gene already knows: that happiness doesn’t result from material wealth but from performing honest work for honest pay. That used to be the American way.
Undoubtedly, the film’s message might seem hopelessly naive to some viewers—particularly those who’ve clawed their way to the upper echelons of the likes of Goldman Sachs and wonder why the 99% wastes its time griping rather than making something of themselves. And perhaps there’s a bit too much simplistic moralizing. Part of the problem may be the film’s overall approach. Sometimes it runs more like a sprawling documentary than a movie. Yet the film’s candidness is also one of its greatest strengths: one thing I don’t think The Company Men can be accused of is pandering or neglecting to tell it like it is. Jobs can be tough. That’s what films like this are for.
Joe’s Grade: B