Friday, January 28, 2011

The Company Men: Downsize this

The Company Men (2010) • View trailer for The Company Men
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang

Although made with good intentions and well performed by an earnest cast, The Company Men ultimately drowns beneath writer/director John Wells’ soggy sentimentality and contrived character dynamics.

Not to mention a Pollyanna “resolution” that will infuriate anybody suffering long-term unemployment as a result of the current economic downtown. At the risk of inserting a major spoiler, we all should be lucky enough to catch the attention of a well-heeled sugar daddy.
Although unemployed and facing no prospects, Bobby (Ben Affleck, right)
breezily refuses an offer of work from his blue-collar brother-in-law, Jack
(Kevin Costner), which merely reinforces the latter's belief that his sister
married a world-class idiot.

Wells tries to eat his cake and have it: utterly impossible, when dealing with a subject this grave, this immediate, this ripped from the headlines. If Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) are intended to represent men downsized and left feeling impotent by the loss of their stature as primary family bread-winners, then Wells must remain true to this premise. Instead, he eventually opts for a jarring fairy tale outcome apparently intended to send people from the theaters with optimistic smiles.

Nonsense. While it’s true we usually seek solace and escapism from the movies, we also expect consistency and fair play on the part of the filmmaker. 2009’s Up in the Air felt real, and made shrewd, perceptive statements about the widening divide between greedy corporate CEOs and rank-and-file employees; The Company Men is trite, dishonest and ultimately insulting.

The story begins as Bobby, smugly confident of the good life he has provided for his family, arrives at work after an early morning round of golf, only to discover that he has been swept up in a fresh round of layoffs at GTX, a large manufacturing conglomerate with more than 60,000 employees (although not for long). Bobby simply cannot – will not – believe it: This can’t be happening to him.

Still, he’s bright, cocky and talented; he breezily insists, when joining the ranks at a local professional job placement service – funded for a few months, as part of the GTX severance package – that he’ll be “outta here in a few days.”

His wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt, delivering this film’s most sensitive performance), knows better. Although resolutely in her husband’s corner, she knows he’s but one of thousands of middle-age MBAs seeking new placement; she advises selling his beloved Porsche, canceling the country club membership and cutting back on “routine” expenses that have left them with absolutely no cushion.

Although outwardly the portrait of robust success, with the fancy home and extravagant lifestyle, the Walkers are – like so many Americans – one month’s salary away from losing their overly mortgaged bubble of happiness.

Bobby’s departure – as the face of this newest round of layoffs – weighs heavily on Gene, the No. 2 man at GTX. Back in the day, he helped found and develop the company with former college roommate James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson). They started small and modest, building ships. Then, somewhere along the way, their goals shifted. Salinger, his eyes on an ever-expanding financial prize, has become seduced by the smell of money. Gene, a firm believer in loyalty, has grown disheartened by his best friend’s willingness to overlook the all-important relationships with employees, the pride of building something tangible and then being able to point to it, the sense of a family-style “business community.”

Right now, with GTX at the crux of an important merger, Salinger demonstrates a ruthless willingness to do anything to juice the company stock ... and that means closing “underperforming” parts of the business, and shedding “superfluous” employees.

Phil, now a mid-level manager in his early 60s, but once a feisty, fearless blue-collar guy who loved to build those aforementioned ships, lives in a constant state of fear. He’s midway between Bobby and Gene on the GTX pecking order, and therefore – in a way – the most vulnerable. Bobby has his comparative youth; Gene has his stock options. Phil, if let go, would be virtually unemployable.

In theory, this shouldn’t matter; at his income level, Phil should be able to walk away and enjoy a comfortable retirement. But apparently he started a family late, and – as with Bobby – failed to plan ahead. Phil has a high school-age daughter expecting a fancy trip to Italy, and a wife who ... well, we don’t get to learn much about Phil’s wife, except that she’s prone to “headaches” (migraines? alcoholism?) and too obsessed with appearances.

At about this point, the contrived, kitchen-sink nature of Wells’ character development becomes intrusive.

Bobby, the cocky one, has the steadfast, loyal and practical wife. Phil, the nervous and fearful one, has the shut-in wife: disloyal to the point of cruelty. When the hammer does eventually fall on Phil – we know it will; that’s the nature of this story – his wife makes him stay away from home until dinnertime each day, so the neighbors will believe him still employed.

Gene, the caregiver who takes the weight of the company of his shoulders, has the materialistic wife – who blandly expects to take frivolous trips on the corporate jet – and loveless marriage. Gene therefore is in the midst of an affair with – wait for it – Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), GTX’s head of Human Resources.

The woman orchestrating all the recent mass layoffs.

Gene’s sleeping with this woman??? Gene, the bleeding heart who feels the pain of every individual departure, is canoodling with Satan’s emissary herself???






Bello, for her part, can’t begin to sell her character’s complexities. Sally simply isn’t two-faced, which presents us with an impossibility: The warm, sympathetic woman we see with Gene couldn’t possibly be happy with her hatchet job, and an eleventh-hour attempt at justification – the usual “I thought I could make a difference from the inside” – rings hollow. Sally Wilcox simply isn’t real.

Kevin Costner does much better with his supporting role as Jack, Bobby’s brother-in-law. Jack is a carpenter: a pragmatic blue-collar guy who regards Bobby’s “work” with skepticism. (What do MBAs actually do?) Jack can point to the houses he has constructed, and he radiates the peaceful satisfaction of a guy who understands the value of a reasonable paycheck for a visible day’s labor.

Wells clearly understands this attitude; he worked many carpentry jobs while growing up, he explains in the press notes, and related to the “older guys” who enjoyed showing their kids what they had built. Jack therefore is one of this film’s best conceived characters, and Costner smoothly, persuasively fills the role. Jack doesn’t like Bobby much, but nonetheless offers his brother-in-law a job when the news – which Bobby has (of course) tried to conceal – finally breaks. It’s what families do.

Bobby, naturally, refuses the offer, manages to make the refusal sound condescending, and breezily insists that he’ll be fine. Costner, eyeing Maggie with genuine concern, tosses the retreating Bobby a disapproving grimace and growls, “Your husband’s such a dick.” A solid, well-timed line, persuasively delivered.

Indeed, Wells provides no shortage of those. Although this is his first big-screen feature, he’s a longtime veteran of numerous solid TV dramas, from China Beach and ER to The West Wing and Southland. He absolutely knows how to wind an audience up and keep viewers in their seats, on a week-to-week basis.

But that’s the trouble: Wells tries to cram about a TV season’s worth of angst and melodrama into a 109-minute film, and it simply can’t be done. He tosses in enough subplots, character arcs and narrative hiccups to fuel three or four films, and then – to make matters worse – forces a resolution that feels dishonest and weirdly hasty.

And that’s a shame, because we certainly care about all three of these men, and about several of the supporting characters. Jones gets a lot of emotional heft into his craggy, doleful glances; Cooper is eminently believable as an increasingly desperate guy who sees nothing but doors slamming, in real life and in his mind. Affleck, as well, delivers a credible arc; we spend the most time with Bobby, and therefore are most heavily invested in his need to ... well ... wake up and smell the coffee. To stop being a jerk, and become a better person.

Eamonn Walker does well with a solid supporting performance as Danny, one of the many hopeful guys at the placement service where Bobby lands. John Doman pops up briefly, and credibly, as an exec from another company who delivers a painful dose of reality to Phil. And Nelson is the pluperfect arrogant CEO: the guy we love to hate, and this film’s stand-in for all the soulless corporate bastards referenced in the real-world radio and TV news bites that play over the opening and closing credits.

Wells obviously wants these discouraging headlines to add a layer of relevance to his screenplay, but they merely reinforce – particularly during the closing credits – how glib and dishonest this film is.

I respect the attempt – without question, we must, must, must address our bewildering national complacence regarding corporate malfeasance – but the execution here leaves much to be desired.

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