Harry Forbes
The surprising moral probity of 'The Company Men'
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Anyone who’s ever endured the indignity of job loss and the corresponding loss of self-worth—not to mention a soul-destroying series of dispiriting job interviews and the patronizing attitude of friends, relatives and still-employed former co-workers—will find that “The Company Men” strikes a queasily familiar chord. If ever there was a film reflective of our economically depressed times, this is it.

Ben Affleck is Bobby Walker, a cocky, golf-loving executive salesman in the shipping division of GTX, a Boston-based conglomerate. He’s blithely unconcerned when, one morning, the hushed staff informs him that the H.R. director Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) wants to see him. When he breezily deigns to meet with her, he discovers to his amazement that he’s being laid off, his 12 years of service to the company counting for naught.

The division-wide purge, of which Bobby is merely one casualty, also plunges an aging company executive Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) into deep anxiety about his own future, and profoundly disturbs company co-founder (GTX’s number two man) Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), who has already publicly expressed qualms about the company’s bottom-line tactics.

On the domestic front, Bobby’s sympathetic wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) immediately sees the need to scale back their standard of living, though Bobby remains in denial. But before long, they and their two kids are living with his folks, his golf club membership has been cancelled, and he ultimately must eat the humblest of pies by accepting a construction job from his sardonic and often contemptuous brother-in-law Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner), who has never ceased needling Bobby about his cushy lifestyle. (Costner inhabits his blue-collar character in a superbly unshowy performance.)

Tommy Lee Jones vividly conveys Gene’s palpable unease with the events around him, and his growing wariness about his ostentatiously affluent lifestyle and thoughtlessly materialistic wife. The latter has driven him into the arms of Sally, a down-to-earth companion despite her dubious role as the company’s hatchet woman.

As poignantly embodied by Cooper, Gene is emblematic of a worker of a certain age suddenly forced to lie about his age, dye his hair, fudge the years of his schooling and army service. “You’re pushing 60 and you look like hell,” a former colleague tells him over lunch. Phil’s wife won’t let him home during day to keep up the front with the neighbors. Humiliated and hopeless about the future, he soon turns to drink.

Craig T. Nelson is the smarmy CEO, James Salinger, the film’s outright villain. Once Gene’s partner, school chum and roommate, they built the business together, but Salinger lacks Gene’s conscience. And he interprets Gene’s forthright criticism as disloyalty. Meanwhile, he rakes in an annual salary of $22 million and, oblivious to the shattered lives of his employees, oversees the building of lavish new headquarters for GTX.

Though all this makes for a rather bleak, downbeat story, it’s an uncommonly intelligent one, courtesy of John Wells’s nuanced script. The executive producer of “ER” directs as well (his début) and paces the sober story well, so it is never less than absorbing.

The film is superlatively acted, with everyone at the top of his game. Affleck adds yet another memorable portrait to his recent spate of solid performances and believably conveys the utter bewilderment and embarrassment of his situation. The smaller parts are all astutely cast, such as British actor Eamonn Walker (HBO's "Oz") as one of Bobby’s GTX cronies who ends up on Dolan’s payroll.

It’s consoling to see how the Walker family stays together through the hard times. Bobby’s young son assumes that his parents are having marital problems until Bobby sits down with him and comes clean about his predicament. He had been keeping his downsizing a secret from the kids as much as the neighbors and in-laws. His cover is blown when, while saying grace at a family gathering, his young daughter innocently includes a wish that Daddy will soon find a job.

The lay-off scenes are particularly on target. And when Affleck tells off an officious hiring manager who seems more involved in her luncheon salad than his livelihood, I’m sure many viewers will cheer him on, despite his rude manner. The script is also perceptive in its depiction of esteem issues: Bobby says he feels like a “37-year-old unemployed loser who can’t support a family.” There’s a solid moral tone throughout, as when Gene posits whether the potential downsizing of several employees can pass ethical scrutiny even if it passes legal scrutiny.

Ultimately, Wells’s script drives home the ways in which the dignity of the individual is of little concern to an increasingly impersonal management that has more concern for the stockholder than the loyal, long-term employee. 

I’m not sure, however, that the film has great commercial appeal. The millions of currently unemployed would certainly empathize with the characters here, but do they want to? Didn’t Depression-era audiences flock to Busby Berkeley musicals and other escapist entertainment? Still, all the more credit goes to Wells and company for taking on such an uncompromising story. And the film ends on a hopeful note, which I won’t spoil.

Comparisons with last year’s “Up in the Air” are inevitable, though the emphasis there was on the consultants brought in to carry out the grim task of downsizing. The sacked employees seen in that film—many of whom were real people who had been given the axe—gave the film some of its most poignant moments.

“The Company Men” gives us more fully the perspective of those made redundant and, in doing so, provides this still young year one of its most worthy and compelling films.

Harry Forbes is a film and theater critic and the former director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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