Tracking the parallel trajectories of three employees laid off from cushy corporate jobs at the same Boston-based manufacturing conglomerate, The Company Men is transparent in its ambition to capture The Way We Live Now from a sensitive, equitable—rather than a withering and satiric—point of view. Writer/director John Wells portrays the economic crisis and contemporary workplace experience through three representatives, each of a distinct generation and origin, who end up meeting somewhere in the middle. Bobby (Ben Affleck) is the cocky young hot shot with the perfect-seeming family, forced to trade in his Porsche and his pride and take a job with the proudly blue-collar brother (Kevin Costner) of his pragmatic wife (Rosemarie DeWitt). Bobby's two former colleagues, both in post-middle-age/pre-retirement limbo, are large-living, still-idealistic-at-65 exec Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), and Phil (Chris Cooper), a fiftyish boozer who worked his way up to management from the factory floor and can't conceive of how to fill a day off the clock.
Wells is better known as the showrunner of massively successful network TV franchises such as ER and The West Wing. Wells' film-making stamp, if you can call it that, hews closely to his iconic TV brands: Character is paramount over story, and style serves primarily to elevate relatable types into archetypes, heroic and/or tragic and/or triumphant and/or martyred. Wells' weakest link in terms of craft is pacing: Here, he takes his time setting up the distinct social strata and moving Bobby from one (country club) to another (construction site), almost as if he has a full season to flesh out arcs. The whiplash-quick happy ending, probably intended as inspirational wish fulfillment, actually comes off as kind of a joke.
Even with its potentially noxious message—The Bad Economy Is Hard On Rich People Too—The Company Men was often spoken of as a cousin to another star-studded but decidedly middle-class-focused borderline indie about our crumbling society when it premiered at Sundance in January. Call it Up in the Air, Too! The surprise then was how well the gambit worked: With uniformly excellent performances (Affleck is particularly satisfying) and a script that parceled out sentiment judiciously and left a fair amount unsaid, The Company Men put movie-star faces on some of the least sympathetic victims of the financial crisis and still felt like a more mature reckoning with the moment than Jason Reitman's Oscar nominee.
The Company Men
Written and directed by John Wells. Starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Maria Bello and Rosemarie DeWitt.
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But after nearly 12 months and a shorter, more upbeat streamline from the Weinstein Company's own men, The Company Men is less effective as an urgent portrait of our tough times—in part because we're still living those times and are even more aware now that there's no quick happy ending. What still rings true, however, is the symbiotic link between money and masculinity. Not exactly dude-friendly, The Company Men is maybe best understood as a chick flick about dicks: Before its too-easy conclusion, the movie offers a multifaceted glimpse at what can happen when the connective tissue between a man and his source of income is cut.