Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Company Men

THE COMPANY MEN                                              B+                                          
USA   Great Britain  (109 mi)  2010  d:  John Wells

This is the first film that attempts to project the magnitude of the nation’s recent economic woes, as seen through the eyes of several white collar managers that are fired, whose lives, as they know it, are inexplicably altered forever, where people have to do a gut check and re-assess what they’re willing to endure in order to survive.  Pride is on the line, as people have a high opinion of themselves, but this film is about watching that veneer of confidence slowly dissipate, as without a job many have a hard time believing in themselves.  The film documents the various stages of the fall from grace, from the initial denial that it’s happening to you, the injustice of it all, leading to anger and bitterness, until eventually one is humbled by the force of having to admit that they’re unemployed, where the social stigma is like having leprosy.  No one wants to get near you, and you’re ashamed to admit it.  The film really gets that defeated tone just right from the start until just before the finish, where a needless Hollywood happy ending is tagged on at the end.  But up until that point, this film surprisingly gets it right, largely due to the viewer empathy established with the characters and the truthfulness of the performances all around, starting with Ben Affleck as a Boston manufacturing super salesman who’s pulling down $160,000 a year, plus incentives and bonuses, until his company merges and in order to keep the stock prices high, he finds himself a casualty, as he’s suddenly terminated in the opening moments of the film and offered three month’s severance pay.  With a million dollar home in the suburbs, a Porsche car, memberships in exclusive golf resorts, and kids who aren’t nearly old enough yet to even be thinking about college, he suddenly doesn’t have the means to pay his bills, even after he sells the house and the car, as he still owes more than they’re worth.  After initially refusing to acknowledge the obvious, that he would never again make anything close to his previous salary range, he just needs to find one employer that’s willing to hire again.  And of course, millions of people in identical situations around the country are hoping for the same thing, where a job offer would be paramount to a miracle, as none are forthcoming. 

What makes this film particularly interesting is that it escalates to the people above Affleck, where one of the original co-founders of the company, Tommy Lee Jones, who is now criticizing the decisions of the CEO, his former college roommate and best friend, Craig T. Nelson, who is the driving force behind the decisions to make drastic cuts in personnel, identifying that they’re working for the stockholders not the employees, believing they were well paid and the company no longer owes them anything.  The trustful interplay between these two is cracking, as their priorities are different.  Nelson’s stock options are going through the roof, while Jones is watching good people that he hired a decade ago get tossed along the wayside as collateral damage.  One of those is Chris Cooper, one of the last of the high paid execs to go, and one that doesn’t deal with it gracefully.  For awhile, the more interesting story belongs to the upper echelon, as Jones is actually sleeping with and invested in a personal relationship with the hatchet lady (Maria Bello), the company spokesperson performing the dreaded layoff interviews face to face, while also maintaining a disastrous marriage in an oversized home with a woman he can barely even speak to any more.  It’s interesting to see just how the economic scale affects how the wives deal with the sudden changes, where Jones’s wife will still take her shopping trip to Palm Springs but without the corporate jet while Affleck’s wife can’t pay the mortgage.  Brother-in-law Kevin Costner who’s continually making snide remarks about corporate excess even prior to the news is excellent as a working class carpenter who offers Affleck a job during the hard times, an offer that is rejected out of hand.  Many months later, however, Affleck comes crawling to Costner for the work, even bringing in help that he met on the unemployment line, showing that these are desperate times. 

This is writer and director John Wells’s first film, where he’s previously done television work on ER, and he’s aided here by a superlative cast, also the Coen Brother’s ace cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Shot on location in Boston, the giant interior corporate window scenes are especially expressive, as the windows determine the executive pecking order, doled out to those willing to support the CEO and make him look good, as much of their lives is spent on the cocktail party circuit showing themselves and their wives or mistresses off, living the high society life, and basically talking about themselves in an insular world that is defined by the executive yes man mentality, as any critical voice is quickly distanced from the inner circle.  While this film may be told in broad strokes, it does an excellent job framing what goes wrong, showing the world falling apart for certain individuals who are used to being on top all the time, with people catering to their every need.  When that stops, there’s some question about whether these individuals can accept their downfall, as we’re all aware of stories of former employees “going postal,” where they come back to work with a bagful of guns and ammunition after being fired.  This doesn’t go there, but it considers it, meaning anything’s possible.  The film is weakest when it comes to finding a way out of this mess, even for the characters portrayed in the film, as that part of the story really isn’t being told.  What is happening to all these middle class families with kids that need to go to college whose parents have lost their jobs and their homes?  Where are they now?  In my view, they’ve become invisible.  

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