The Company Men

The legacy of the global financial crisis and the collapse of the American manufacturing economy are addressed in John Wells’ sombre downsizing drama The Company Men, a timely exploration of the human cost of unemployment on three men, all working for fictional conglomerate GTX.

The story opens with brash sales manager Bobby (Ben Affleck) sweeping into the company car park in his white Porsche before taking a thirty-second meeting with the Human Resources executive Sally (Maria Bello), collecting his office ornaments in a box and getting back in his car. In order to cut costs and stabilise the company share price, Bobby and 4,999 other GTX workers have been made redundant by CEO James Salinger (Craig T Nelson) in an attempt to bolster the company share price. Now-former colleague Phil (Chris Cooper), a fifty-something executive who worked his way up from the factory floor, offers mild condolences but he is too concerned about his own position to care much. Bobby’s erstwhile mentor Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), Salinger’s closest confidante and right-hand man, heads the company’s ship-building division. He’s an old fashioned executive doing an increasingly old-fashioned job, making big, expensive things from iron and steel.

Initially, it is difficult to sympathise with the problems of three guys in incrementally costly suits, grinding their teeth about having to forego expensive green fees, luxury cars or private jets. Wells overcomes this instinctive aversion through the accretion of small, realistic details and well chosen dialogue, making sense of events as the characters do. Bobby and his wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) have not been planning for a rainy day. Once he is let go, they have nothing but his redundancy payments, no savings, no shares in the company. Everything is invested in their house, which is now worth a lot less than they paid for it. Maggie goes back to work as a nurse while Bobby spends his time looking for a new job, but money is still too tight. With two kids to feed and funds dwindling, he takes a job with a small construction company owned by his brother in law Jack (Kevin Costner), swallowing his pride, breaking a sweat and learning to live within restricted means.

In a sense, the film is a rejoinder to Jason Reitman’s slick Up In The Air, which made a mid-life drama out of the financial crisis. Superficially the same story (but told from the point of view of the guys who get fired) The Company Men takes a more serious approach, emphasising common sense, ethics, hard work and earned reward. Roger Deakins sensible photography reinforces the sober mood. Gradually, however, the precision and bite gives way to broadly-painted sentiment: going from clear to misty-eyed, sometimes within the same scene.

This sudden soft-centeredness might be the result of fitting four (including Coster’s) storylines together, but the resulting manipulation has the same deflating effect. First time feature director Wells has significant pedigree, producing and directing small-screen series’ like ER and The West Wing, but doesn’t have the same space in 100 minutes to tell a story that might comfortably fill twice as much time on television and the results are condensed and overemphasised.

Veterans Jones and Cooper are reliably intense and self-contained but Affleck’s struggles to find any real depth in Bobby with his performance limited to variations on mystification, impotence and rage, like a man who has stubbed his toe while looking for his keys. Best of the lot is Costner as the laconic carpenter, the epitome of blue-collar, beer-and-barbeque America. The film would have benefited from spending more time with him.

It might be ungainly and uneven but The Company Men cannot be faulted for its sincerity, ending on a hopeful note that emphasises resilience, self-belief, changing priorities and starting again. Timely, like I was saying.

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