AFFLECK ENDURES BAD COMPANY
The Company Men puts Hollywood spin on harsh realities of job cuts
In The Company Men, a corporate drama about downsizing among the rich and privileged, Ben Affleck plays Bobby, a hotshot young sales manager with a $160,000-a-year salary, a Porsche, a reasonable golf game and an unreasonably attractive young wife (Rosemarie DeWitt). One day he goes to his office at a big Boston company that builds ships, only to learn they’re cutting staff, closing plants and laying him off. Or, as they say in the corporate suites, “Difficult deci- sions had to be made in areas where redundancies surfaced.”
The reactions are mixed. Phil (Chris Cooper), a 50-ish executive who worked his way up from the plant floor, greets Bobby with, “Did they say who else is on the block?” Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), cofounder of the company, known for his gruff candour and wrinkled hon- esty — Jones is starting to look like the leather couch at the cottage — asks the senior partner Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) to stop the bloodbath. It all has to do with maximizing stock values ahead of a possible takeover, but Gene looks at a painting in Salinger’s office and says, “Sell the f---ing Degas.”
It’s a joke, of course. Corporate America doesn’t sell its f---ing Degas.
Nor does it cancel its new headquarters, or cut the boss’s $22-million-a-year remuneration.
The Company Men is both an implied critique of omnivorous capitalism and a call for a return to the days when people built things with their hands, with commensurate salaries and satisfactions. That is, it is at once false, idealistic and satisfying, both as an instrument of schadenfreude and a Hollywood version of the new reality.
It was written and directed by TV veteran John Wells (ER, The West Wing), and has the episodic feeling of a miniseries. It’s mainly the story of Bobby, who has filled his large house with the spoils of wealth: big-screen TVs, recreational vehicles, children he doesn’t have time for and so on. He slowly loses them — the film’s abiding image is of people leaving office buildings with a file box of possessions — and must replace them with things that are more important, but the movie understands that it’s better to be rich. “Truth is, I like the $500 lunches and the $5,000 hotel suites,” Gene confesses at one stage.
Bobby is custom-made for Affleck. It puts him in a fancier part of Boston than he normally occupies, but it calls on that same half-finished persona, an air of strained sincerity trying to break through a square-jawed sense of entitlement. He’s the one protagonist who gets a fleshed-out family — a pragmatic wife, a worried son — and a character arc that is determined by his wardrobe. Bobby goes from business suits to jeans as he discovers the truths of the outplacement office, the job market and the callous big world.
Phil is the tragic figure, the older man who has the most to lose if further redundancies surface. Cooper doesn’t have much to do but look worried, and well he should; you feel the film is ready to abandon him in favour of its more charismatic victims. As Phil says, his life was ruined and no one noticed.
Gene is the movie’s conscience, but he’s a flawed hero, just as Salinger is a textured villain who only wants what’s best for the shareholders. The real bad guy here is the fact that all the other kids have an X-box or are going to Italy on spring break.
Just when you begin to wonder how much you should care — after all, some economic victims are living in cardboard tents under the freeway — along comes Kevin Costner, aging into a lived-in grumpiness as Bobby’s brotherin-law Jack. He’s a renovator who doesn’t understand the executive life: “ Move any more high-paying American jobs offshore?” he might ask by way of greeting. Jack is old America; pickup-truck, beerdrinking, modest-house, chuck-a-football-around-the-backyard America and, in The Company Men, he’s the future.
But not all of it. The movie ends with an abrupt turnaround that seems as fantastical as an election promise. This is a story of disillusionment that can’t bring itself to sell the Degas, and it tells us that the system works, even though it is being released into a world where many do not.