Every generation has its definitive cataclysm: World War II, Vietnam, Watergate, and the loss of innocence and despair those events bring. The Company Men is no different in charting the central tribulation of our own age. The suits in the film are dealing with their own traumatic after-effects, though this time from an economic cataclysm: the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. These high-level execs shuffle with their sad cardboard boxes through corporate parking lots, shout affirmative mantras at career centers, and try to grapple with having their master-of-the-universe chairs kicked out from under them. The film opens with a survey of American plenitude: status cars lined up in driveways, understated mansions, rec rooms filled with computer games and kitchen counters equipped with a jackpot of shiny, expensive Williams-Sonoma appliances. Ensconced in that plush upper-middle-class world is sales executive Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), who is also the first to go when The Company Men opens. Walker is a cocky 37-year-old gunning for CEO who’s stunned to see his trajectory dramatically interrupted by corporate downsizing.
Walker’s smart, supportive wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) is pragmatic: put the house on the market, end the country club membership, sell the Porsche. Even his son knows the score: return the Xbox pronto. But for Walker, the illusion of success is what distances him from abject, future-ruining failure. Without the Porsche and golf, he fears a future employer will smell his fear.
The Company Men feels almost documentarian in its comprehensive treatment of downsizing on both Walker’s micro and American industry’s macro level. Director and writer John Wells, a TV vet (ER, The West Wing), covers the loss of self-esteem and shame downsizing brings (Walker can’t bring himself to tell his extended family he’s lost his job). But he also tackles a catalog of attendant gripes: excessive CEO salaries, industries that have lost touch with the product they are selling, and a disposable aging workforce represented by pushing-60 company man Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) whose prospects after losing his job are nil. The conscience of the film, the one who voices many of these macro issues, is Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) who founded Boston shipbuilding and manufacturing behemoth GTX along with CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson). McClary does not like Salinger’s reflexive tendency to downsize whenever there’s an economic downturn. Looking around Salinger’s lavish office, McClary sees one way to make a mint without losing workers; he tells Salinger to “Sell the fucking Degas!” on the wall. While Salinger continues to plot lavish vacations and command an enormous salary, Salinger’s ax-woman Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) is razing the ranks of his company with his blessing.
In a subplot that may strike some as excessively obvious, Walker gets in touch with the lost American values of hard-work and integrity by taking a desperate last-ditch job with his brother-in-law Jack’s (Kevin Costner) construction company. There, Walker confronts a new code of ethics, including a boss who works late to get the job done on time (but sends his workers home to their families) and protects his workers’ jobs at his own expense. For Walker, it’s a radical departure from the everyman-for-himself white-collar scheme. In some ways the point is well-taken. Though notions of honest work and allegiance to co-workers aren’t the norm in the American workplace, Wells’ delivery is heavy-handed.
Much of The Company Men feels a little too pat and tidy: white collar bad, blue collar good. And director Wells is too anxious to deliver a fairly conventional happy ending and obvious message too, which reeks of the tidy moral bundles that characterize TV episode plot lines. The better strategy might have been to go deep into the travails of just one of these execs (Cooper would get my vote) rather than trying to offer a cross-section of economic crisis from multiple generational points of view. Yes, the economic downturn has hit thirtysomethings in a different way than fiftysomething executives, but one film can’t possibly tell all of those stories without losing focus and depth.
There are other problems too, from the affair craggy old-timer McClary is carrying on with golden girl Sally Wilcox. Really? It’s the kind of beauty-and-the-beast pairing only Hollywood could dream up. And Affleck, while playing a man in the despondent economic doldrums, never really loses his shiny-penny gleam. It’s hard to feel his despair in the same way as Cooper’s, with his squirrelly panic and old-guy hair combed into a sad semi-pompadour.
The Company Men tackles some highly relevant ideas that are nice to see in an American film besides a muckraking documentary. But its approach is often superficial and obvious, and a topic this relevant, that affects so many people, deserves much more.