The Company Men
The directorial debut of John Wells, best known for his work as a writer and producer on glossy prestige network dramas like ER and The West Wing, The Company Men takes on the very topical subject of corporate downsizing. It's perhaps too topical, as it's hard to see people queuing up to see a film that essentially reiterates what they've been hearing on the news for the past two years and, for many, experiencing in their own lives. But Wells brings all the skills he learned from his decades in television to bear on the film, and it's nothing if not slick, taking a tired subject matter and making it as engaging as it possibly can.
Wells is aided by some excellent actors. Tommy Lee Jones brings a wryness and gravitas to his role as the higher up forced to watch as the company he helped build guts itself from the inside, no surprise really, as Tommy Lee Jones could exude wry gravitas ordering a pizza. Chris Cooper gives a remarkable performance, saddled with the least rewarding, most underwritten role, he manages to make his character's march through the most obvious aging businessman made redundant cliches so heartbreaking you almost forget they're cliches.
They're really just the supporting characters though; the film's main focus is on Ben Affleck as the youngest and first to be fired. As he struggles to find another job, he is forced to deal with his bruised ego and loss of status, eventually having to humble himself by accepting a charity job putting up dry wall from his brother-in-law (Kevin Costner, who wasn't about to get left out of any film uniting the most all-American looking actors in America). There are some nice moments and interesting details, particularly in the depiction of the bizarre purgatory of the outplacement center, but it still winds up feeling too much like a classier version of Jersey Girl or any of the million other “yuppie loses everything but learns about himself” films Ben Affleck made back when he was still a movie star.
The Company Men is heavy-handed and obvious in places, and genuine and heartfelt in others. It's very much of a piece with Wells' TV work, but what the best of those shows had that The Company Men lacks is a truly dynamic subject matter. It's like the domestic sub-plots of ER or The West Wing without the parts where they're saving peoples lives and running the country. The drama in The Company Men is so low key it often feels non-existent.
Of course there's nothing wrong with a quiet character study, but these characters don't have a terrible amount of depth. They function more as symbols, each representing a different segment of America. Overtly political films tend to sacrifice character and subtlety to make their point, but the point Wells is making, while not one most would disagree with, is also nothing we haven't all heard before. The Company Men is a very skillfully made film, but it plays it so safe and conventional it's hard to imagine anyone really connecting with it. It's made to be mildly enjoyed and then forgotten.
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