Movie Review: The Company Men
By Matthew Huntley
February 9, 2011
Men (and women, I assume) often develop a direct relationship between their job and their self-worth. The better job we have, the more useful and confident we feel. It’s only natural, then, that when it comes to our work, we like to think we’re special and invaluable, that no matter how tough the going gets, our bosses will see how many years we’ve dedicated to our jobs and be fully aware of what we do, making it impossible to let us go. That’s what we assume and hope.
But as thousands of men and women have learned over the past few years, the reality of it is quite different. One character in The Company Men says, “I lose my job and the world keeps going.” Yes, because when our world stops, we automatically assume everyone else’s does, or at least should. But it’s a painful truth when you learn you may not be so special and that you’re expendable. It’s painful to learn, yes, but it’s the truth.
This is something the characters of The Company Men must face. When the film opens, it is September 2008, and the DOW has plummeted 800 points. Bobby (Ben Affleck), Gene (Tommy Lee Jones) and Phil (Chris Cooper), men of various ranks and positions at Global Transportation Systems (GTX), suddenly face an uncertain future. Each of them lives in luxurious suburban homes outside of Boston with two-car garages, swimming pools, antique furniture, video game systems and widescreen televisions. They drive cars worth what most men would hope to make in a year.
Director John Wells shows us multiple shots of these material possessions early on to foreshadow such things are about to succumb to the economic crisis. Wells’ methods are not as blatant as they are blunt. These men are about to lose what they’ve worked to obtain and will learn security isn’t a given. They’re not bad men, but perhaps they’ve come to expect too much.
Bobby is the first to be let go. The Human Resources representative (Maria Bello) tells him that he (and 5,000 other employees) will receive three months severance plus training and guidance to find other employment. The scenes where Bobby must endure small work spaces and listen to a personnel agent deliver her routine speech about fear, determination, success and waking up your inner tiger are sad and pathetic, but, sadly, probably accurate.
Up until now, Bobby has considered himself special, but he’s suddenly faced with the idea he’s just like everybody else, and it shakes him up. His wife, Maggie (warmly played by Rosemarie Dewitt), is more realistic than her husband and immediately opts to stop eating out, cancel skiing at Christmas and even start taking shifts at the hospital as a nurse. Bobby hasn’t accepted this is how it is and still wants to pay dues to the country club. His ego is so fragile he out rightly dismisses his brother-in-law’s (Kevin Costner) offer for construction work.
Gene has more anger because his division at GTX was shut down without his authority. His boss and longtime friend, James (Craig T. Nelson), went behind his back and knew he had to do whatever it took, including downsizing, to keep his company afloat.
Gene and James more or less fit into the archetypal roles of moral voice and evil corporate honcho, and while it may seem like there’s not a lot to their characters, I believed there are men out there like them and that Jones and Nelson’s performances weren’t exaggerated.
The Company Men isn’t so much an introspective film as it is a broad representation of corporate culture during an economic crisis. It relays the headlines we’ve seen on the news but doesn’t go into stark detail. For this reason, there aren’t a whole lot of surprises in the film and it’s fairly clear how we’re supposed to feel at any given moment.
With that said, it does a good job of putting the grim reality of a recession into effective narrative form. If anything, it serves as a caveat for over-consumption, greed and how life is prone to curve balls. It feels traditional on many levels and each character is rigidly defined. Instead of really probing their situations, it opts for manipulative emotional moments, including an unnecessary suicide. Still, the genuine performances allow us to sympathize with the characters, and although the film doesn’t go as far as its subject could take it, it’s well directed and thoughtful.
You obviously don’t need a feature film to tell you what’s happening with the economy, but The Company Men makes for an entertaining drama and humbling parable. It ends on what is perhaps an artificially upbeat note, but in times like these, and given what the characters (and thousands of real-life individuals) are going through, feeling upbeat, even if artificially driven, is sometimes what we need.