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Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: The Company Men (2010)

* * * 1/2

Director: John Wells
Starring: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper

There are casualties in every Oscar season, films that fly too far under the radar and just generally have bad timing. If the release of John Wells' The Company Men had been handled differently, if it had been given time to find an audience and develop some momentum, it probably would have secured a nomination or two. Coming a year after the similarly themed, and much more tightly focused, Up In The Air it probably wouldn't have cracked the Best Picture lineup, but its individual elements could have garnered some much deserved attention.

The Company Men focuses on employes at GTX, a corporation hit hard by the economic downturn and forced to downsize. Of course "forced" is a term used somewhat liberally here as the issue isn't so much that there isn't money to keep its employees, but that keeping employees cuts into the profits enjoyed by investors. One of the first casualties of the cuts is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a mid-level hotshot who had previously thought he was on his way to bigger and better things and suddenly finds himself with a house he can't afford, a family he's having trouble supporting, and an inability to reconcile the image he wants to project with the reality of his financial situation. His wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), is understanding at first but as the months drag on and Bobby continues trying to live the life he was living before, she finds herself having to give him a reality check: drop the country club membership, sell the Porsche, and get a job, any job.

Meanwhile, a second round of layoffs claims the job of Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) who, nearing 60, is in an even worse position than Bobby. He worked his way up through the company for decades and now finds himself unemployable and his life begins to fall apart. His friend and former boss, Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), tries to help him hold it together but Phil slips too far too fast. Gene, it should be noted, was also fired but has the luxury of having millions of dollars worth of stock in the company and can gracefully transition into retirement, though he's troubled and made restless by the direction he sees the corporate world going.

Wells, who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing, does a fine job at establishing the characters and drawing us into their personal crises. In the film's opening moments, it's difficult to imagine how you might end up feeling badly for these characters - after all, they're living in these enormous houses, surrounded by all the toys and trappings of wealth, and Bobby skips out on a morning of work to go golfing - but as their change of circumstances takes its toll, stripping away the facade and revealing the insecurities underneath, it's easy to feel compassion for them. When Bobby starts working for his brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), doing drywall and later confesses to him that for the first time he hasn't felt scared, it really cuts to the heart of the film. If a corporation exists solely as a means of generating money for investors, how could any employee ever feel secure in their job?

The cast - which includes Maria Bello as the GTX HR manager tasked with doing the firing - is uniformly excellent. Jones, in particular, does a magnificent job at creating a fully fleshed character who, while far from perfect, becomes very human as the story progresses. All in all, The Company Men is a very good movie, though perhaps just a little bit too gentle given how widespread and devastating the effects of the economic downturn have proved to be.

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