“The Company Men” plays like an account of perhaps the most pressing issue of the day — job loss and the impact of the economic downturn — as viewed from an upholstered armchair. Debut feature film from TV giant John Wells dramatizes with intelligence and evident ample research the increasingly desperate straits of one-time prosperous white-collar colleagues once they’re cut loose into a terrible job market. But the pain feels cushioned and secondhand, the characters are not terribly sympathetic or interesting other than for their misfortune, and the film shows little interest in analyzing the situation other than to point fingers at greedy CEOs. Despite its strong name cast, the picture has more the air of a deluxe cable TV offering than of a viable theatrical attraction.
At the story’s center is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a young exec at Boston-based manufacturing giant GTX whose smug confidence when first seen playing golf at a country club is immediately off-putting. But his self-satisfaction is revoked when, along with many others, he’s canned in a spasm of corporate downsizing. While Bobby can’t hide the truth from his pragmatic wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), he can’t bring himself to admit it to anyone else as he continues to tool around town in his Porsche. His embarrassment and sheepishness are genuinely felt, and the pic is at its best in conveying the loss of face and noting the accepted commonalities of upper-middle-class life that are actually luxuries rather than necessities.
With 12 weeks’ severance, Bobby sulkily attends motivational training and begins looking for work, but it’s frigid out there. Next from GTX to join him in limbo is Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a considerably older man who, with much bleaker job prospects, goes into a quick tailspin. And it’s hard to blame him after a counselor advises him to dye his gray hair, take his Vietnam War service off his resume and not mention any jobs he held before the 1990s.
Then there’s Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), GTX’s No. 2 man, who founded the company with CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) but, in the current cutthroat environment, represents the sole voice of conscience. He unsuccessfully fights to save Phil from the blade and increasingly argues a more humane p.o.v. to James, whose bottom-line view is that jobs can be given and jobs can be taken away. Ironically, Gene, whose fancy wife is preoccupied with the corporate jet and expensive furniture, carries on a secret affair with GTX hatchet woman (Maria Bello).
In a startlingly short period of time, Bobby and Maggie can no longer meet their mortgage payments. Suitably humbled, Bobby takes a job carrying lumber and fetching coffee for his barely tolerated working-class brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), a building contractor with a small crew. This creates an opportunity to ponder the relative satisfactions of jobs that involve guys in suits moving numbers around versus manual labor that results, as Gene nostalgically puts it, in “building something you could see.”
As it happens, some of the numbers cited here don’t really add up in a modern context. Bobby is said to have made $125,000 a year at GTX, but that wouldn’t be nearly enough to support his beautiful and very large old colonial in a great neighborhood, as well as all the extras; nor would such a house be devalued, even in the recession, to only $650,000.
Wells sets his sights mostly on educated, traditionally upwardly mobile whites, which is fine; one of his main points is how this historically solid mainstay of American life is being pushed to the brink of endangered-species status. But the importance Jack assumes late in the game, in that at least this working stiff is in a position to hire people even if his profit margins have been whittled to virtually nothing, suggests so much more potential to the story.
Stylistic approach, notably the cool, immaculate images of lenser Roger Deakins and the quietly but disconcertingly perky score by Aaron Zigman, further ensures that raw, visceral impact will not count among the picture’s virtues.
Affleck carries the film reasonably well, but one isn’t convinced that, even with all Bobby has gone through, the character has changed in any fundamental ways by the end; indeed, it would be a surprise if, in a new job, he would behave any differently than when he was at GTX. Although her character’s uniform rationality and supportiveness are hardly compelling, DeWitt is vividly alive in every moment. Cooper, Jones and Nelson shrewdly underplay in cagey-old-vet fashion, while Costner’s common man seems years younger and healthier.