Too much money changed hands; too many jobs were lost under conditions which were too complicated to be fully understood. While the lingering feeling remains that something shady was done, it’s hard to tell what or who did it, so everyone blames everyone and negative feelings remain high. Add to that the need of a villain of some sort in the standard three-act structure that dominates so much of American film and you’ve got a tough road to hoe.
Nevertheless, long-time television producer John Wells (“ER,” “The West Wing”) is going to give it his level best in his directorial debut.
Like America itself, shipping and transportation titan GRX is a company in transition and unsure where it’s heading. Originally a builder and manager of industrial shipping options like trains and cargo ships, times have been tough for GRX as “the age of American heavy industry is gone.” If GRX doesn’t want to go with it, its owner and board decide, they’re going to have cut costs as best they can and try and ride out the storm.
That’s not particularly good news for the employees of GRX’s worst performing division like sales manager Bobby (Ben Affleck). It’s especially bad news for older employees like Phil (Chris Cooper), all too aware off the reality of a 60-year-old middle manager finding a new job in a damaged economy.
It’s prime material for of-today melodrama, which is pretty much what we get.
Some of it is to be expected from a film with a large cast of characters like “Company Men.” Though it spends most of its effort on Bobby and his old boss Gene (Tommy Lee Jones) as they try to navigate the new corporate realities in their own way, it still has only so much time to offer to them.
The result is characters who, though well performed, are conceived in quick brush strokes and serve largely as elements in a philosophical argument about where American capitalism went wrong and the core American values it needs to return to an honest days pay for an honest days work.
Though he doesn’t work on Wall Street, Bobby might as well be your prototypical trader a salesman who has done his best to escape from his blue collar background to a world of Porsche’s and early morning tee times. He’s living high on the white collar hog with too much debt as he tries to feed the ambition that drove into the business world to begin with. And when that world comes crashing down around him, it’s those same ambitions that keep him from fully accepting it, letting him live in the delusion that he doesn’t have to change his life or give up his luxuries because he’s only going to be out of work for a little while.
In several ways, Affleck is probably just the right actor at just the right time in his life for this role and it shows. Not just because he’s been to the promised land and been ejected from it is own life, but also having reached a certain age where he can take that experience and channel it effectively. The result is a fine performance that has you rooting for Bobby even when he’s being a complete ass.
In fact “The Company Men” benefits from excellent casting that takes much of the burden of a screenplay that doesn’t have the depth to match the challenge it has taken onto itself. The real scene stealer, actually, is Jones as the corporate officer and best friend of the CEO who is still not above being fired. Though he is financially independent, the loss of actually doing something weighs on him and it shows in every line of Jones’ face.
The problem is, with as much surehandedness and clarity as Wells directs “Company Men,” his story is frequently hopelessly juvenile, often a setup for the mouthing of ill-thought out platitudes about the pay separation between CEOs and the common man versus worth of work, usually from the mouth of Bobby’s jerk of a brother-in-law (Kevin Costner), a handyman and carpenter Bobby is forced to go to work for when his attempts at finding another white collar job fall apart.
He’s not the only one, but it becomes most readily apparent when Jack shows up in the second half. While the first half slowly builds, efficiently and effectively as it sends its leads spiraling out of their lives and wondering how it happened, the second half tries to answer that question. Unfortunately Wells just isn’t up to it, laying in simplistic statements (sometimes in the form of out and out monologues on the subject) about how we’ve turned our backs on important things like family and actually making things in the quest for more money and status, and if the country (and we as part of it) just returned to those traditional values we could be great again. There’s some truth in there, but the moralizing surrounding a tremendously complex subject is more than a little off-putting. If Wells were interested in examining the issue through the lens of his characters, looking at all sides of it equally, that would be one thing. But he’s not, he’s already got an answer and the rest of the film is just him pushing it, which is pretty tiresome to actually watch even if you agree with him.
As an examination of a floundering American economy, “The Company Men” is shallow and one-sided but pretending to be otherwise; as a character study of the individuals caught in the economies effects it is engrossing and entertaining on the back of strong performances from its ensemble. Some more of one and less of the other and it could have been genuinely great. As it is, it’s not bad and often pretty good.