‘The Company Men’: A sensitive portrait of an Affleck-looking jerk with a Porsche

Still from The Company Men. ()
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It’s hard to feel sorry for the laid-off executives in The Company Men (Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris Cooper). They have existed in a bubble of privilege and status for years, working at GTX, a giant multinational company that started as a humble shipbuilding business and is now a many-tentacled behemoth. With the economic crash of 2008 all three get laid off, one after the other, and they suddenly realize what most people have known for a while now: it’s really tough out there.

Sorry you have to give up your vacation homes and your trips to Europe, guys. We've already done our scaling back. Now it’s your turn.

All of that being said, The Company Men, directed by John Wells (the creator of ER), does work, and it works in its detailed observations of corporate culture, and the environment in which these guys operate. The script for The Company Men (also by Wells) demonstrates a really good ear not only for corporate-speak, but for the ways people speak to one another in private (“If things get really bad, I could bag groceries.” “Don’t be a jerk, okay?"). The Company Men wants to say something about America now, and its outsourcing of itself, and its loss of something else much more important. Something spiritual, perhaps. One need only look at images of ruined Detroit to understand that something cataclysmic has happened in America. What, exactly, do we make anymore?

The star of this sometimes blunt morality tale is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a local Boston boy, an MBA, used to making six figures, living in luxury with his wife and two kids. When GTX starts to sell off and merge its divisions, Bobby loses his job. In an example of the efficiency of the film-making in The Company Men, gained from Wells’ years of producing network television where you have less than an hour to tell an entire story, the opening sequence of Company Men cuts to the chase in 7 or 8 cuts: It starts with news footage of the economic crisis of 2008. We then see shots of three fancy houses, and three guys (Affleck, Jones, Cooper) putting on their ties in the mirror. Then we see three cars pulling out of three driveways. Next, we see Affleck strolling into the office, on top of the world, bragging about his golf game, and in the next moment, he is fired. It's not even five minutes into the movie at this point. The old-school directors told stories like that (there’s a five-second sequence in George Stevens’ Penny Serenade (1941) that gets the characters from a hospital in Tokyo to a small house outside of San Francisco in only three carefully-chosen cuts), and Wells knows that he doesn’t need to do much to let us know who these guys are.

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Bobby Walker is completely unprepared for the reality of what it will mean to look for a job in his position in life. He’s an MBA, and was a mid-level executive at GTX, and now he finds himself interviewing for regional sales manager positions that will involve a 50 percent pay cut and a relocation to Little Rock. Neither of these things is acceptable to him, and it takes him a while to understand the gravity of the situation. He won’t give up any of the symbols of his status, like the Porsche or the membership at the golf club. He won’t let his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) go back to work. He’s a slow learner.

There’s a scene in which he meets with an HR representative about a job and is already annoyed at being in a submissive position and the exchange gets ugly pretty quick. It’s reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman frantically looking for a job on Christmas Eve in Kramer vs. Kramer, but because it’s Ben Affleck, and because the character has already been set up as a pampered snob, the effect is quite different. Our sympathy is not with him. His brother-in-law, Jack Dolan (in a really enjoyable performance by Kevin Costner), is a working-class contractor who treats Bobby as the fragile flower that he really is, ribbing him about his slick life, and, finally, offering him a job when things get really bad.

The other executives, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), have been involved in GTX from the beginning: McClary was a co-founder and Woodward got his start on the shipbuilding floor. These men have known one another for decades. There is a wary closeness between them, and the film is very good at showing how men define themselves by their work, and how when that work is taken away, their identities shatter. This is especially true for Phil Woodward, a man with a sick wife (her ailments remain mysterious—she gets “headaches”) and a bubbling cauldron of resentment at being put out to pasture. There is a brutal scene where a career counselor looks over Woodward’s long resume and says he needs “to get rid of all the ancient stuff on here”. She says that in a chipper no-nonsense voice, as though it makes perfect sense, but Cooper’s face, listening to her, shows the deep gong of existential alarm that goes off in him. Ancient stuff? This is my life we’re talking about here, lady. That “ancient stuff” made me who I am today. But in today’s world, with squeaky-clean young MBAs pouring out of colleges and ready to work 90-hour work-weeks, where is there a place for an old dog like Phil Woodward?

Gene McClary (Jones) is more psychologically suited to the changes in his life, he’s a gruff tough old guy, and while he does not like the way the wind is blowing, he rolls with the punches with a bit more resilience. He sees an opportunity for himself in the changing of his fortunes. Unfortunately, he is given a long speech about America and how “we used to build things”, as he walks with Ben Affleck through an abandoned shipyard, and while he plays it well (Tommy Lee Jones plays everything well), the sermon is unnecessary. It shows Wells’ background, where “what have we learned from this” is an essential part of episodic television. Here, we don’t need it. We can already see the wreckage. That scene would have played much more eloquently if Affleck and Jones had walked through the dilapidated shipyard in total silence. An elegiac walk through what America used to provide: industry, innovation, real work, and, on a deeper level, meaningful lives for those who participated in that industry. We all live in that world, we are all aware of what is happening; we don’t need a sermon to understand it.

Ben Affleck has had quite a trajectory, starting with the juggernaut that was Good Will Hunting. In recent years, his directing efforts, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2009), have won him not only critical acclaim but have generated an Oscar nomination for one of his actors (Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone), with another one probably (Jeremy Renner in The Town). Affleck had a couple years there where he seemed very lost, starring in big action pictures (Armageddon, Reindeer Games, Pearl Harbor, The Sum of all Fears) and he seemed uncomfortable in those roles (it will take a long time for me to erase the horrid memory of the animal-crackers scene in Armageddon from my brain); it was a skin that didn’t quite fit. Here, and in The Town, he is in his proper milieu. He’s best when he plays a guy who feels like a loser, who knows he really is a loser, but who wants really badly to be a winner.

Affleck is not really a conventional leading man. He’s got too much insecurity for that. That insecurity is what makes Affleck who he is, and what makes him compelling to watch. Here, as Bobby Walker, he gets to be a little bit ugly, kind of a jerk, and while I could have done without the swelling inspirational music underneath the scene where he nails up drywall for his brother-in-law at his new job working construction, the point was made. Bobby Walker’s winner-trappings like the the car, the golf and the house were hollow for him. They always will be for someone like him, and he will always be the last one to realize it. Affleck is very good in The Company Men, and part of the reason is that he understands, on what seems to be a cellular level, what it means to have people think you’re a fraud, and too entitled and successful for your own good. He gets that. He uses that. This is the direction Affleck needs to go in as an actor, especially as he reaches his 40s. It makes him interesting.

Kevin Costner, as the regular dude who seems to have a purer relationship with his work, gives his best performance in years. His Boston accent isn’t bad, either (it’s one of the toughest regional accents to do). The underlying assumption in the film, however, that people who work with their hands are somehow more fulfilled than those who push pens across gleaming desks, is problematic. It’s an idealized (and condescending) vision of the working class. Those with the cars and mansions and trips to Italy can afford to idealize it, because they don’t have to wake up at 5 in the morning to haul cement up flights of stairs. But Costner plays it straight and plays it real, and his saintliness (working late by himself to get the job done) is downplayed by the rough edges he brings to the character. As a counterpoint to Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue about how America used to make things, Costner’s Jack Dolan is the representation of the Americans who still do, those who build houses they could not afford to live in themselves, those who treat their work with dedication and seriousness. The results of Jack Dolan’s work, unlike Bobby Walker’s work at GTX, can be seen in the world. A house is real. There is pleasure in work like that, and the sequences with Costner are some of the best in the film.

The Company Men has a pretty straightforward look and feel, with simple yet elegant cinematography by Roger Deakins, but its success lies in the down-and-dirty details of how we live now. The sequences at the out-placement center, where laid-off executives go to take motivational courses (they are made to stand and shout, in unison, “I HAVE FAITH, COURAGE, ENTHUSIASM”), redo their resumes, and work the phones trying to drum up another job, are hilarious and acutely observed. Chris Cooper’s Phil Woodward gets drunk in the middle of the day, because his wife doesn’t want the neighbors to know he has been laid off and so he is not allowed to come home until 6. A Willie Loman for the 21st century, Cooper shows the despair at the heart of those who have put their entire lives into a career, only to find that the rules of the game have changed and he is no longer needed. At one point, he stands outside the gleaming GTX headquarters late at night, throwing rocks at it in drunken flailing gestures, and screaming, “MOTHER-FUCKERS."

The strength of The Company Men, even with its sometimes-didactic dialogue, its too-obvious music and its idealized view of those who actually work for a living, is that it already knows that we will have very little sympathy for these three guys. But it also knows that we should.

The Company Men opens nationwide on January 21.