It’s past time that Hollywood addressed the effects of the current recession, but the tack taken by John Wells is an odd one. Instead of dealing with the thousands of middle-class workers who lost their jobs, his film focuses on corporate executives forced out of theirs. And however we’ll played—and they are in “The Company Men”—it’s hard to empathize overmuch with these well-tooled fellows with their million-dollar homes and ostentatious (frequently overextended) lifestyles, even if they do occasionally stop to think about the regular guys being laid off beneath them. That’s especially the case since we never see most of them working very hard, except scanning ledgers and reports and trying to save their own cushy positions.
Still, as a view from the executive suite, the picture isn’t without merit. The centerpiece is the story of Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), an MBA who’s been with the company twelve years as head of marketing in the shipbuilding division of conglomerate GTX. He’s suddenly terminated in a reshuffling mandated by owner James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), who’s intent on boosting profits and share price in order to stave off what he perceives as an imminent takeover attempt, and most of the action follows him as he goes through his severance package until he’s forced to sell his opulent house at a loss (his precious Porsche goes, too) and move, along with his wife and son, into his parents’ place. When the company-provided placement service turns out to be a bust, he’s even reduced to asking his brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner)—a small-time contractor with whom he’s never gotten along—for a job on his construction crew.
The problem with focusing on this fellow is that quite frankly it will be hard for many viewers to sympathize with his plight. When we meet him he’s a cocky sort who spends a lot of time on the country club golf course and, as far as we can tell, hasn’t been very successful lately at racking up sales, which is what he’s getting big bucks to do. (As his old-fashioned boss, CFO Gene McClary, who’s pained by any firings and is played by Tommy Lee Jones with the morose face of the enlightened leader who cares for his people), points out, the economy’s bad, but still one can understand why Bobby’s expendable.) Moreover, Bobby certainly appears to an overextended himself financially, and has trouble coping with his newly straitened situation, apparently harboring a rather unpleasant sense of entitlement. What he objects most violently when his wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) tries to balance the family budget is her decision to cancel his country club membership because, he says, he has to look successful in order to get another job.
Of course, the whole point of “The Company Men” is to present a dramatic arc in which Bobby learns the hard lessons of capitalism in its present-day guise. Wells makes an easy division between the hard-working Jack, who actually produces something worthwhile and has such concern for his crew that he takes winter jobs at a personal loss to keep them employed, and big-time sharks like Salinger, who won’t sell the Degas originals on his office walls but is willing to cavalierly cashier thousands of hard-working people to maintain his hold on the company. It’s a pretty simplistic dichotomy the script draws, though not an unappealing one.
But what to make of the subplot about another character—older executive Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper)—who we’re told worked his way up from the factory floor and takes his termination extremely hard? The sole evidence we get of the pain it causes him is when his daughter asks him whether he’ll be able to afford funding her senior trip—to Italy. Apparently when Phil determines he won’t, he takes extreme action of a sort that’s predictable from the moment one sees his worried face and furrowed brow. (Of course, ageism is a factor in his case, too.)
And ultimately Wells can’t end his film without a happy ending. So he has McClary, who’s fired too (but with a golden parachute) decide to give up the Louis XIV-style life his socially-conscious wife demands and use his money to buy a derelict dockyard and start a shipbuilding business, hiring Walker and other ex-employees of his old firm. The message is that corporate America should relocate its old principles and return to its manufacturing roots—a nice thought, but perhaps not a practical one. (I set aside the subplot about McClary’s affair with Sally Wilcox, Salinger’s chief hatchet-woman played by Maria Bello, which seems totally extraneous and unnecessary, except perhaps to bolster Jones’s role.)
“The Company Men” is technically fine—one would express no less of a film shot by Roger Deakins—but ultimately Wells stacks the deck overmuch to deliver his message about a corporate bottom-line mentality that shows no concern for ordinary workers. And to make matters worse, he focuses on middle-management types who aren’t ordinary workers at all. The result is a film that may mean well but doesn’t get down to depicting the real suffering that goes with recession. Concentrating on the economic downturn’s effect on the (perhaps undeservedly) privileged seems the wrong way to go.