Corporation games – The Company Men review

The Company Men – Starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper. Directed by John Wells. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

John WellsThe Company Men is not ferocious enough. This is a film that attempts to depict the widespread layoffs of 2008/09 – the ones that crippled families and businesses across America, and the world – and uses them as a basis for a quaint pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps homespun dramedy. There is a time for Capra-esque charm, and this is not that time. This is a time for Chayefskian outrage. As anyone who has ever been part of a family struck by unemployment knows, anger is the persistent sentiment long before peaceful acceptance arrives. Looking back at the GFC as an opportunity to return to the good-ol-days of American ideals – as was cloyingly hoped for in Pixar’s Cars – is a little insulting. Some may say The Company Men is a timely movie. I say it’s out of time. This is a time to rebel like it’s the final scene of Fight Club, and to fight back with the best weapon at our disposal: art. The Company Men is fine, I suppose, but frankly it lacks the cojones that the people it is ostensibly about deserve.

Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper all star as high-level execs who unexpectedly find themselves the recipient of a very special slip of the pink variety. Cast out of their well-paid jobs at their Boston-based shipping firm, they are forced to find new meaning in their life. For Affleck’s Bobby Walker, it’s spending time with his wife, kids, and working as a carpenter for his sunovabitch brother-in-law (Kevin Costner), while undertaking the heart-breaking process of dolefully enduring outplacement courses and being rejected at job interviews (this aspect of Affleck’s storyline rings truest). Jones (the most appealing actor in the film by far) plays Gene McClary, who is fired by his best friend and company CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson); he could rest on his laurels/millions, but is driven to leave his materialistic wife and shack up with the company’s HR rep (Maria Bello). Cooper’s Phil Woodward is caught between a rock and a hard place; too experienced in a field where he can no longer find employment and too old to train for another role. His fate is an unpleasant and, most depressingly, a common one.

Yes, this sounds a lot like Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air. The main difference is that those doing the firing in Reitman’s film are somehow more sympathetic than the ones being fired here. That movie was about discovering what it meant to lead a rich life, be you employee, employer or firer-for-hire. So, Wells would probably argue, is The Company Men. But Up in the Air followed one man making the transition from soulless lackey to a hero with a heart. He fired the middle and lower classes from their desk jobs, and eventually realised that they were still better off than he. Reitman infused the film with biting corporate comedy and an ending that – depending on who you asked – could be read as either beautifully hopefully or depressingly bleak. Best of all, the entire film felt as if it took place in a broken America, as George Clooney’s character travelled the country to lay waste to careers, businesses and offices became increasingly empty, as if it were the end of days and he were the sympathetic horseman of the apocalypse. It offered respite to the real-life victims, without betraying the pointed-satire of Walter Kirn’s novel.

I suppose there isn’t much difference between The Company Men and Up in the Air, except the latter is multi-layered and the former keeps resorting to “aww-shucks-apple-pie-cooling-on-the-windowsil” sentimentality. The Company Men also focuses on some of the least sympathetic victims in the GFC: the executives. Now, I’m all for movies about sad rich people, but I prefer it when flawed characters – regardless of their social standing – are chastised and forced to confront their failings. Are we meant to believe these guys are saints? Even the big boss played by Nelson, who signs off on the thousands of layoffs? Was everyone involved in the mass-firings across America just an innocent who accidentally wandered into a situation that ruined a nation? I don’t want Wells to invent a Darth Vader like villain to blame this crisis on – besides, those villains already exist in reality – but I certainly don’t want him to vindicate the guilty parties.

In Frost/Nixon, Sam Rockwell’s character James Reston Jr. angrily shares his concerns about the impending televised interview with the disgraced former president, saying that the worst thing they could do is to give him the opportunity to absolve himself in the eyes of the American public. Instead, they need to give Nixon the trial he never had. The same should be said of the guilty parties of the GFC, for all the lives they ruined in the quest for a higher income. This is the dark side of the American dream: anyone can become a wealthy capitalist, especially if they walk over their fellow countrymen and women. At one point in the film, not even Costner’s regular Joe Carpenter thinks Affleck should turn down a big pay check in favour of his new, simple life in which he gets to spend time with the wife and kids. This film’s priorities are all over the shop.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

The Company Men opens across Australia today.

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