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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 and 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, a sometime-producer for auteurs as disparate as Robert Altman, Todd Haynes, and John Waters, is better known as the showrunner of massively successful network TV franchises such as ER and The West Wing. Wells’s filmmaking stamp, if you can call it that, hews closely to his iconic TV brands: Character is paramount over story, and style—embodied by Wells’s idiom-thick script, Roger Deakins’s coolly detail-oriented cinematography, and Robert Frazen’s cross-cutting—serves primarily to elevate relatable types into archetypes, heroic and/or tragic and/or triumphant and/or martyred. Wells’s 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!? (tagline: This Time, the Jets Are Private, the Downsizing Is Personal).
The surprise then was how well the gambit worked: With uniformly excellent performances (Affleck—an actor well familiar with rising fast, falling hard, and having no choice but to work his way back into the winners’ circle one calculated decision at a time—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. At the very least, Maria Bello’s Adulterous Woman As Symbol for the Chill of Corporate Culture subplot is a lot less simplistic than Vera Farmiga’s; maybe it’s another thing to chalk up to his experience as a producer of long-running ensemble soaps, but Wells seems to know better than to manipulate his audience into falling in love with a heroine, only to reveal that she’s actually the biggest villain.
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 pyrotechnics are all actorly, and emasculation is as pervasive as the defense-mechanism body humor in a bromance), 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, and rarely suggests that it could be anything less than excruciating to stop the bleeding.