This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
It’s hard to feel sorry for the laid-off executives (Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris Cooper) in The Company Men. They have existed in a bubble of privilege and status for years, working at GTX, a giant multinational company that started as a humble shipbuilding business and is now a many-tentacled behemoth. With the economic crash of 2008 all three get laid off, one after the other, and they suddenly realize what most people have known all along: ‘Man, it’s really tough out there.’ Yes. It’s tough out there. Sorry you have to give up your vacation homes and your trips to Europe. It’s time for all of us to scale back a little bit. Now it’s your turn.
All of that being said, The Company Men, directed by John Wells (the creator of ER), does work, and it works in its detailed observations of corporate culture, and the environment in which these guys operate. The script for The Company Men (also by Wells) has a really good ear not only for corporate-speak, but for the ways people speak to one another in private (“If things get really bad, I could bag groceries.” “Don’t be a jerk, okay?”). The Company Men wants to say something about America now, and its outsourcing of its labor, and the loss of something else much more important, something spiritual, perhaps. One needs only look at the photos of ruined Detroit to understand that something cataclysmic has happened in America. What, exactly, do we make anymore?
The star of this sometimes blunt morality tale is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a local Boston boy, an MBA, used to making six figures, living in luxury with his wife and two kids. When GTX starts to sell off and merge its divisions, Bobby loses his job. In an example of the efficiency of the film-making in The Company Men, gained from Wells’ years of producing network television, the opening sequence of Company Men cuts to the chase in 7 or 8 cuts: It starts with news footage of the economic crisis of 2008. We then see shots of three fancy houses, and three guys (Affleck, Jones, Cooper) putting on their ties in the mirror. Then we see three cars pulling out of three driveways. Next, Affleck strolls into the office, bragging about his golf game, and in the next moment, he is fired. The movie is not even 5 minutes in at this point. The old-school directors told stories like that (there’s a 5 second sequence in George Stevens’ Penny Serenade (1941) that gets the characters from a hospital in Tokyo to a small house outside of San Francisco in only three carefully-chosen cuts), and Wells knows he doesn’t need to do much to show us who these guys are.
Bobby Walker is completely unprepared for the reality of what it will mean to look for a job. He’s an MBA, and was a mid-level executive at GTX, and now he finds himself interviewing for regional sales manager positions that will involve a 50% pay cut, and relocating to Little Rock. None of these things are acceptable to him, and it takes him a while to really understand the gravity of the situation. He won’t give up any of the status symbols: the Porsche, the golf club, he won’t let his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) go back to work. He’s a slow learner. There’s a scene where he meets with an HR representative about a job, and he goes into the meeting already annoyed at being in a submissive position. The exchange with the HR rep gets ugly pretty quick. It’s reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman frantically looking for a job on Christmas Eve in Kramer vs. Kramer, but because it’s Ben Affleck, and because the character has already been set up as a pampered snob, the effect is quite different. Our sympathy is not with him. His brother-in-law, Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner, in a really enjoyable performance), is a working-class contractor who treats Bobby as the fragile-flower he is, ribbing him about his slick life, and, finally, offers him a job when things get really bad.
The other executives, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), have been involved in GTX from the beginning, McClary as a co-founder, and Woodward who got his start on the shipbuilding floor. These men have known one another for decades. There is a wary closeness between them, and the film is very good at showing how men define themselves by their work, and when that work is taken away, their identities shatter.
This is especially true for Phil Woodward, a man with a sick wife (she gets “headaches”) and a bubbling cauldron of resentment at being put out to pasture. There is a brutal scene where a career counselor looks over Woodward’s long resume and says he needs “to get rid of all the ancient stuff on here”. She says this in a chipper no-nonsense voice, as though it makes perfect sense, but Cooper’s face, listening to her, shows the deep gong of existential alarm that goes off in him. “Ancient stuff”? This is my life we’re talking about here. That “ancient stuff” made me who I am today.
But in today’s world, with squeaky-clean young MBAs pouring out of colleges and ready to work 90-hour work-weeks, where is there a place for an old dog like Phil Woodward?
Gene McClary (Jones) is more psychologically suited to the changes in his life, he’s a gruff tough old guy, and while he does not like the way the wind is blowing, he rolls with the punches with a bit more resilience. He sees an opportunity for himself in the changing of his fortunes. Unfortunately, he is given a long sermon about America and how “we used to build things”, as he walks with Ben Affleck through an abandoned shipyard. The sermon is unnecessary and shows Wells’ background, where “what have we learned from this” is an essential part of episodic television. We can already see the wreckage here. The scene would have played much more eloquently if Affleck and Jones had walked through the dilapidated shipyard in total silence. An elegiac walk through what America used to provide: industry, innovation, work, and, on a deeper level, meaningful lives for those who participated. We all live in that world, we are all aware of what is happening, we don’t need a sermon to understand it.
Ben Affleck has had an interesting trajectory, starting with the juggernaut that was Good Will Hunting, and in recent years his directing efforts (Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2009) have won him not only critical acclaim but has generated an Oscar nomination for one of his actors (Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone), and will probably generate one more (Jeremy Renner in The Town). Affleck had a couple years there where he seemed lost, starring in big action pictures (Armageddon, Reindeer Games, Pearl Harbor, The Sum of all Fears) and he seemed uncomfortable in those roles (it will take a long time for me to erase the horrid memory of the “animal crackers scene” in Armageddon from my brain); it was a skin that didn’t quite fit. Here, and in The Town, he is in his proper milieu. He’s best when he plays a guy who feels like a loser, who knows he really IS a loser, but who wants really badly to be a winner. Affleck is not a conventional leading man. He’s got too much insecurity for that. Insecurity is what makes Affleck who he is, what makes him interesting to watch. Here, as Bobby Walker, he gets to be a little bit ugly, kind of a jerk, and while I could have done without the swelling inspirational music underneath the scene where he nails up drywall for his brother-in-law at his new job working construction, the point was made. Bobby Walker’s “winner trappings”, the car, the golf, the house, were hollow for him. They always will be for someone like him, and he will always be the last one to realize it.
Affleck is very good in The Company Men, and part of the reason is because he understands, on what seems to be a cellular level, what it means to have people think you’re a fraud, and too entitled and successful for your own good. He gets that. He uses that. This is the direction Affleck needs to go in as an actor, especially as he reaches his 40s.
Kevin Costner, as the regular dude who has a purer relationship with his work, gives his best performance in years. His Boston accent isn’t bad, either (it’s one of the toughest regional accents to do). The underlying assumption in the film, however, that those who “work with their hands” are somehow happier than those who push pens across gleaming desks, is a big problem. It’s an idealized (and condescending) vision of the working-class. Those with the cars/mansions/trips to Italy can afford to idealize it, because they don’t have to wake up at 5 in the morning to haul cement up flights of stairs all day long. But Costner plays it straight, plays it real (I know that guy), and his saintliness (working late by himself to get the job done) is downplayed by the rough edges Costner brings to the character.
As a counterpoint to Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue about how America used to make things, Costner’s Jack Dolan is the representation of those who still DO make things in this country, those who build houses they could not afford to live in themselves, those who treat their work with dedication and seriousness. The results of Jack Dolan’s work, unlike Bobby Walker’s work at GTX, can be seen in the world. A house is real. There is pleasure in work like that, and the sequences with Costner are some of the best in the film.
The Company Men has a straightforward look and feel, with simple yet elegant cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, but its success lies in the down-and-dirty details of “how we live now”. The sequences at the out-placement center, where laid-off executives go to take motivational courses (they are made to stand and shout, in unison, “I HAVE FAITH, COURAGE, ENTHUSIASM”), redo their resumes, and work the phones trying to drum up another job, are hilarious and acutely observed.
Chris Cooper’s Phil Woodward gets drunk in the middle of the day because his wife doesn’t want the neighbors to know he has been laid off and so he is not allowed to come home until 6. A Willie Loman for the 21st century, Cooper shows the despair of those who put their entire lives into a career, only to find the rules of the game have changed and he is no longer needed. At one point, he stands outside the gleaming GTX headquarters late at night, throwing rocks at it in drunken flailing gestures, screaming, “MOTHER-FUCKERS”.
The strength of The Company Men, even with its sometimes-didactic dialogue, its too-obvious music, and its idealized view of those doing manual labor, is that it knows we will have very little sympathy for these three guys, but it also knows that we should.