Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Company Men

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Mild to medium spoilers ahead.

The Company Men perfectly encapsulates a very specific American moment, the months of late 2008 and early 2009 when the economy tanked and companies went bankrupt and homebuyers realized they had shitty mortgages and the big banks made like sneak thieves with taxpayers’ dough.

The movie follows three men who work for GTX, a multi-billion dollar shipbuilding conglomerate based out of Boston, chronicling how each is affected by the economic downtown. Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a smooth alpha-salesman for GTX who takes home well over a hundred grand a year. He lives in a tony suburb with his blue-collar wife and two kids, drives a Porsche, and plays golf at the club. When he gets the axe, he can barely believe it. Not having a high-paying gig does not fit in with his lifestyle.

But he’s not the only employee at GTX to get laid off. When news spreads that Bobby’s been fired, his secretary’s first question is “Did they say anything about me?”  The film outlines Bobby’s descent into denial as he continues to drive the Porsche and keep up appearances to friends, neighbors, and family. He doesn’t want to stink of loser while struggling to find work.

Meanwhile, we get to know Chris Cooper’s Phil Woodward, one of GTX’s first employees who started out working 60-hour weeks as a daredevil spot welder. Now, forty years on, he’s a wasted pencil pusher, sure that he’s next to fall. No one’s surprised when Phil finally gets his pink slip. He’s sixty and has worked at GTX all his life. But he can’t afford to retire. It’s painful to watch Phil as he goes to a job interview. His craggy face and grey hair stand out in shocking relief against a waiting room full of recent college grads competing for the same job, ready to work for half the salary.

Then there’s Tommy Lee Jones’ Gene McClary. He’s a tough talking, no bullshit vice president. The right-hand man to Craig T. Nelson’s James Salinger, GTX’s CEO. They started GTX together back in the day, and have reaped the financial benefits. Aside from Salinger, these men carry the doomed look of the already-fired or about to-be-fired. I got shudders watching these scenes of desperate men as their settled world drops out from around them.

After Bobby’s severance package runs dry, he has to sell his Porsche, and, finally, give up his huge house and move in with his parents. This may sound trite and beg the question: who cares about the rich getting screwed? But director John Wells (who worked as a writer and producer on shows like China Beach, E.R., The West Wing, and Southland) brings the swift pacing and careful characterization of riveting TV drama and makes you care for these white collar workers. We care because we know they are only the first off a sinking ship of many.

Bobby starts working for his contractor brother-in-law, Jack—effectively played by Kevin Costner, all New England-y, thickened, and a hell of a long way from Dances with Wolves. Bobby doesn’t know a thing about hammering nails, but he can learn, and he needs the money. He learns to be grateful for the small stuff, like working a physically demanding job and rediscovering the pleasure of shooting hoops with his son.

Most of the plot points The Company Men hits are laid out in the movie’s trailer like a flowchart. But, regardless of whether or not you can see how the movie ends even before you see it, just go see it. It’s a satisfying blend of corporate greed, white collar paranoia, and the simple but riveting story of how these men recover (or don’t) from the shock of unemployment.

The performances are worth the ticket price alone. Affleck doesn’t make Bobby too much of a cliché, but just enough so that, after Jack offers Bobby a job doing construction and Bobby says, “I just can’t see myself building houses,” Jack whispers to his sister, “You’re husband’s such a dick,” and you know just how he feels. Costner’s part isn’t much more than a cameo, but he acquits himself well, even with an overcooked Boston accent.

Craig T. Nelson lends gusto to Salinger, a character who adheres to the bottom line while overlooking the human cost of layoffs. Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper all do a great job bringing out the frustration, difficulty, and in some cases resignation as old men in a new world where changes to America’s manufacturing infrastructure are quantified in layoffs and site closures. 

The movie ends on a hopeful note, but it’s impossible to forget that what came before was an all-too-real situation for many Americans, white or blue collar. In some ways The Company Men is the flipside to last year’s incendiary documentary Inside Job, which painstakingly mapped how the bottom dropped out of the American financial sector. Although slated for release last year (it still carries the 2010 copyright) this movie should be remembered next year at this time when the Oscars for 2011 movies are announced.


Theater location: Woburn Showcase, Sunday, January 23rd, 2:25 matinee. Price $7.50. Viewed with Liz. Snacks--Peanut Butter Builder's Bar.

Coming Attractions:

The Adjustment Bureau. Matt Damon stumbles upon an concurrent reality where exists the adjustment bureau, a league of fedora-wearing men who control to the flow of daily events. But Matt met a woman he shouldn't have, and now he and Emily Blunt are running for their lives. Or something like that. Inception lite.


Robin said...

Dell -- As usual, this is an insightful, well-written review. I think this movie would be worth the price of admission just to see the great actors involved(Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper). The subject matter is timely and heartbreaking. Thanks for posting!

Cynthia Sherrick said...

I just saw the preview for this film at the movies, and it sent shudders through me. It's all too real and still happening around us.

This is a movie I'd like to see.

Thanks. :)

Dell Smith said...

It's worth it. I recommend it, shudders and all.

Liz's Mom said...

Your excellent review made me want to see this film.

You write so well, with colorful observations and amazing background details. I trust your judgement totally

Dell Smith said...

Thanks for reading, Liz's Mom.