Review: THE COMPANY MEN - Strong Acting Overcomes A Pat Script

rating: 3

The Company Men is the third film in almost as many weeks to broach the subject of the recent financial meltdown, though the first to be fictitious in nature, following the incendiary documentaries Inside Job and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer. While inexorably cornered by its premise - asking us to feel sorry for a trio of upper-middle class families who might lose their second car and oversized home - writer-director John Wells wrings enough truth out of his drama to compensate for the somewhat pat presentation. Wells' film centres on three men trying to stay afloat amidst the recession; white-collar administrator Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), his boss Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), and their colleague, Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper). Though able to stave off unemployment for a while, the chop inevitably comes for each of them, and The Company Men depicts the differing manners in which they handle the news, convey it to their families, and get back on their feet - or not, as is tragically often the case. Much like Jason Reitman's far superior Up in the Air, this film conveys how imbued into people's lives their work can be; the overwhelming embarrassment, frustration and anger at losing a job you'd been promised you'd keep or felt you'd worked hard enough to save seethes beneath Affleck's usually cool, chiseled features. And naturally, it's even worse when those around you are doing well, as frequently happens to the characters here. Though there are no bones about the dog-eat-dog nature of the employment world - particularly one such as this - Wells is able to find some simple, beaten-down humanity in the creased, weathered-looking Tommy Lee Jones, who feels the crushing pang of guilt as his colleagues are summarily cut before his very eyes, while he is locked out of the decision making process altogether despite his standing in the company. Moreso than anyone, he gains an insight into the vile bigger picture, that his company nevertheless turns in astronomical profits for its shareholders. Meanwhile, those who remain employed have to pick up the slack and perform double duty while being apparently grateful to still have employment. It's absolutely sickening. Downcast subject matter though it is, there are moments of gallows levity, such as when Bobby enters a job placement scheme run by his bosses, only to find that the hierarchical structure applies just as much in this scheme - the VPs have larger offices with which to find new jobs, while the rest of the driftwood have to make do with shared cubicles. More relatable is the well-observed insight into how the loss of the primary earner's job affects the entire family, as people get used to living a certain way and, even in the face of oblivion, find it difficult to reign themselves in. Affleck's Bobby is a textbook example of this mode of living; he has absurd salary expectations for his next job, and for a long time, seems unable to make sense of the fact that it might be a good idea to sell the sleek sports car and start taking the bus. This push-and-pull aptly conveys the financial landslide which unemployment will pile upon a family. Viewers may quite rightly yearn for something more tactfully assembled, because occasionally things become just too heavy handed, as in a scene where Gene's bosses show him their new office space and list its many mod-cons, including a shower and dining room, playing its agenda with an almost risible bluntness. The character of Bobby's blue-collar brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) - who offers Bobby a job on his construction team - meanwhile flashes a simplistic class card far too often, romanticising the working class existence to an extent that veers dangerously close to class tourism. In more subtle ways, however, Wells does tap into some unexpected themes, such as the part male pride has to play in the post-employment period, in many ways perpetuated by the glorified dick-swinging pissing contest that is the business world. We get three glimpses into this, with Affleck's taking up the most time precisely because it's the most accessible (and because he's the biggest star); he has a family support system who will ultimately ensure he won't starve, compared to Jones' Gene, who has a money-grubbing wife, and Cooper's Phil, who promises his wife not to return home until after 6pm to spare her the indignity of the neighbours knowing her husband is unemployed. The two other arcs never feel as developed as Bobby - especially Phil's - though each hurtles forward thanks to the strong performances, especially Affleck, who again proves himself a worthwhile front-and-center presence, and after this and good work recently in The Town, demonstrates he's a better performer than most are willing to give him credit for. Let one thing be sure: The Company Men is at its core a hopeful tale, and definitely not as downcast as you'll expect, though the well-to-do generosity of the working classes depicted feels tediously one-note at almost all times, while the riffs on corporate greed are raked over several times for good measure. For all of its many flaws, anyone who has ever struggled with unemployment will find this to be an incredibly sober work. The Company Men is released in the U.K. tomorrow.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.