“You know the worst part? The world didn’t stop.”
Independent and television producer/writer John Wells makes his feature directorial debut with The Company Men, a film about three men coping with the recession, corporate downsizing, and how—for the upper crust of America—unemployment may just be harder work than having a job. The conceit is one that audiences can wrap their heads around, especially with so many having family, friends, co-workers, or perhaps themselves affected in much the same way. But despite this universal theme, the implementation can be a bit heavy-handed and misguided causing more than a few instances of thinking, “Oh, boo-hoo, now you’re going to have to live like the rest of us in the squalor of middle class”. Yes, these men have families and responsibilities too, but when the only true blue-collar character in the film is used as not only charity, by offering a job to the newly unemployed, but also as a pawn to get the former executive to do something selflessly—yes, even when the poor are in the position to help the rich, they still need to be shown as inferior—your compassion does run thin.
That’s the name of the game, though, and Wells had to know he was targeting a specific audience by showing the perils of losing your quarter of a million dollar a year job yet still retaining the ego of refusing to take anything new that offered less. He attempts to hit deeper themes by adding in a suicide, the contrast of a wife whose social status is her identity with another who understands the reality they might have to move in with her in-laws, and the worried son giving away his X-Box because he thinks it may help with familial expenses, but the story is still about people much better off than you and me who have become too materialistic to do what is needed to survive. I understand the difficulty of realizing your way of life must drastically change, but in desperate times, desperate measures must be taken. You do have to make concessions, get out from behind the desk to use your hands for once, and not wallow in self-pity at the bottom of a bar glass. Sometimes finding a way to keep afloat by going places you never thought you’d have to go has karmic retribution in the end, but most times not.
As such, you’d think the three central men—Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a 37-year old sales executive more interested in keeping the appearance of success in the thoughts it will land him a new job than keep his family comfortable; Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a 60-year old sales executive who worked his way up over decades from riveting at the docks to an office with a view; and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), the company co-founder who actually cares about the well-being of his employees rather than the stocks lining his own pockets who unfortunately still needs to answer to his best friend and boss that likes personal earnings of 22-million a year—would average out to making concessions and new lives with less money rather than miraculously being saved. And this is where The Company Men forgets its message. It shouldn’t be about overcoming the recession, but instead discovering within yourself that you’re more than your paycheck. Some modesty and compassion is portrayed, but for the most part these characters, especially Bobby, are given one scene to find an epiphany of humanity as though that’s enough to warrant complete salvation.
It’s a shame too since the performances make you want to pull for them, even with the nagging memory that these guys are playing golf in their Porsches to keep appearances up with men who obviously aren’t helping them find new jobs. Cooper gets his role down perfectly, showing the insecurity and the fear of having to go backwards. The most relatable of all, he didn’t have the Ivy League education or fast track to the top; he was a laborer for GTX when it was a couple guys on the docks. He befriended his bosses through hard work, climbed the ladder, and found a life he only dreamt about. To lose all that at his advanced, highly unemployable age effectively destroys his life and the fact his wife forbids his return home before six so the neighbors won’t know he was laid off only makes things worse. This is a broken man who falls apart much quicker than Affleck’s Bobby who lives in denial that he’ll be back on his feet, watching his wife—wonderfully played by Rosemarie DeWitt—go to work and cut expenditures and balking at his brother-in-law’s— Kevin Costner—offer of work. The role fits, though, and he does find humanity, but his miraculous redemption subverts all growth.
And that leaves Jones, the bigwig you’d assume untouchable with a friend and colleague at the top. It’s admittedly weird seeing his craggy face so often full of anger and toughness soften as the most introspective and human of the bunch. By no means a perfect man—sleeping around with Maria Bello’s Sally, the woman tasked with deciding who populates the five thousand layoffs—he understands loyalty and an employer’s responsibility to his employees. Always wanting GTX to be more of a family than a business, he can’t help but take shots at Craig T. Nelson’s James Salinger for turning a blind eye and caring solely for the bottom-line. Thinking he can appeal to his friend’s all-but-gone sensibilities, he instead puts the nail in his own coffin. Owning stock and sitting on boards makes unemployment much easier, though, giving the time to look around and see a wife who cares only about things and the people he trained and groomed walking around in a daze, helpless and floundering. His Gene McClary makes the film worth watching, a shining beacon of compassion. The cast makes it a strong character piece; I just wish I didn’t need to sympathize with the types of people who caused the recession in the first place.
 Ben Affleck as Bobbie Walker and Tommy Lee Jones as Gene McClary in John Wells’s film THE COMPANY MEN. Photo by: Folger/ The Weinstein Company.
 Ben Affleck as Bobbie Walker and Kevin Costner as Jack Dolan in John Wells’s film THE COMPANY MEN. Photo by: Folger/ The Weinstein Company.
 Chris Cooper in John Wells’s film THE COMPANY MEN.