"The Company Men", the new film from writer-director John Wells, one of the people behind "ER", "LA Law", "Shameless" and many other television hits, is a timely, prescient film featuring an impressive cast. And it has many good points. But ultimately, I failed to connect with the film to the degree I was expecting.
Ben Affleck plays Bobby, the cocky young salesman who is very good at his job. He also enjoys spending the money he earns on a fancy house and all the things his family could need; a Porsche and golf club membership for him, his wife doesn't need to work. Life is good. And it's better because they are living beyond their means. When Bobby gets laid off, he is shocked, but also confident it is a temporary thing. He must not watch the news much.
Bobby feels betrayed by Gene, his boss. And as he realizes the job market is a lot scarier that he thought, his frustration becomes almost palpable. We witness an interview he has for a potential job and can identify with his anger with the overworked, supercilious human resources executive. Then, he finally gets a lead and travels to Chicago for an interview.
It is difficult to call Bobby the central character of the film, Gene seems to have almost equal screen time, but he is meant to be our guide into this narrative. Because of this, we identify with and have empathy for him. His life is like most of ours. We work, we have families, and we live beyond our means. When something bad happens, the world self-destructs.
Affleck is perfectly cast in this role and deftly portrays Bobby. It is interesting to watch the resurgence of Affleck's career. After a string of particularly bad films, he resurfaced a few years ago and directed the well-made and well-praised "Gone Baby Gone", ending a few year long sabbatical from Hollywood. He proved that "Gone" was not a fluke with "The Town", also featuring one of his best performances. Now, he adds another impressive star turn to his IMDB profile.
Gene McClarey is meant to be the conscience of the company and he is clearly willing to question and fight every one of Salinger's decisions. They have known each other for decades and worked together for almost as long. When the company decides to lay off "thousands" and leaves the HR people to come up with a list of possible redundancies, he realizes something is wrong. He certainly enjoys the benefits of his salary and position; he and his wife live in a beautiful house on the water, his wife thinks nothing of spending $16,000 on an antique side table. But Gene also wants to do everything he can do to save the jobs of the employees. They are real people. There has to be an alternative. There must be and he won't stop until he finds it.
Tommy Lee Jones is also expertly cast. When Gene doesn't get what he wants, he feels betrayed and you can see the pain etched in his face. This helps us understand why he is trying so hard to help so many.
Chris Cooper plays Phil, a former shop foreman who has worked long and hard to get to the executive office. Once there, he enjoys the fancy lunches and other aspects of his life too much. When he gets laid off, he has the most difficult time adjusting because people take one look at him and dismiss him.
Each of the three men are representative of two different generations and three different types of people hurt by massive lay offs at large corporations. They are meant to illustrate the problems happening everywhere all over the country.
Maria Bello plays Sally, the HR person who is in charge of making all of these layoffs happen. You can see a dead quality in her eyes. She doesn't enjoy the job, but she does it because it is her job. Also, Sally must know that at some point she is also going to have to deliver a severance package to herself.
And Costner's Jack is meant to be the everyman, the man who is doing everything right. Living modestly, and within his means, he has a large, happy family and helps his employees, guys who also have large happy families.
"The Company Men" is really a lot more subtle than my synopsis of each man's plight might lead you to believe. But it isn't subtle enough. There is a strange disconnect in this film. Yes, it's subtle, but because everyone is so clear-cut, each character has a clear mission in the story. Because Jack is so clearly the one we should be emulating, the narrative almost seems a little preachy. This is what you should have done and because you didn't, you're now in this mess. And this ultimately becomes annoying, rising to the surface, obscuring any of the good, honest performances. I think we understand the problem after watching hours of newscasts and reading hundreds of pages of articles. To have Wells address this issue through Jack and Bobby's performances just seems to be rubbing it in. And this really left a bad taste in my mouth.
Which is a shame because each of the actors is very good and their performances seem custom fit for each of their personas.
"The Company Men" is an Oscar worthy film in many ways. All of the performances are very good and each of the actors is very Oscar-friendly. The studio apparently agrees because they released the film for a one-week limited engagement in December. All films must play for at least a week before December 31 in order to qualify for the Academy Awards. I think they expected at least a couple of nominations to help provide them with a marketing tool when the film was ultimately released 'wide' in January. Unfortunately, the film received no nominations for either the Golden Globes or the Oscars. Perhaps the Academy voters felt the same way and recognized the film was not subtle enough to deserve such recognition.
Now, if the Academy voters would only agree with me about all films.