The Company Men is the feature debut of longtime television powerhouse John Wells (ER, The West Wing, Third Watch) and that’s actually kind of a big deal. This is a man who has nothing to prove on the small screen as a writer, director, or show runner but there was a question whether his style and pedigree would translate. His first theatrical salvo is an interesting film with a very respectable cast focused on subject matter that is all relevant in the world today, and perhaps it may hit too close to home for some. Corporate downsizing. Cheerful stuff.
Wells’ strengths have always been in letting his actors do their thing and not rushing the material. Even in the hectic style and pacing of his television shows he’s allowed some of the very best moments in the entire runs of those shows to unfold, so seeing him work with the likes of Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper almost justifies the admission price alone.
The Company Men is the tale of three men who work for a company with roots in the shipbuilding business. Three men who live for their work, embody three generations of laborers, and three men who are relieved of their duties at the company as it evolves into a world where the appeasement of the stockholders rule the world. Affleck is a CEO in training, a fast mover who has burned his way up the ladder and a man who excels at his job but isn’t above letting his golf game cut into company time. He has a nice house, a Porsche, and the brightest future imaginable. Cooper is a lifer who loves his work and has risen through the ranks the hard way. He’s right on the cusp of being replaceable due to his age and stature in the company but the kind of employee who will give everything he has to the job until the day he dies. Jones is the second in charge to head honcho Craig T. Nelson (an actor who does ‘oily’ as good as anyone in the world) and a old-school tomcat who remembers the early days and clings to them. He still has his conscience and believes that the people are the lifeblood of a corporation. Seemingly untouchable, his outspoken ways and rebellious nature puts him in a precarious place.
The film has an interesting balance of corporate politics, family drama, and a frank and respectful look at the changing world of business but it doesn’t have the ferocity of a David Mamet or Oliver Stone film. Nor does it possess the earnestness and willingness to embrace the melodrama that more aggressively mainstream films have. It paints the blue collar workers (embodied here by an underused Kevin Costner as Affleck’s Brother In-Law) in a somewhat nostalgic golden light but it’s not a full-on Message Movie. It touches on a lot of things but never really delves too deep beneath the surface. In a respect that’s its strength. If the film was an indictment of ruthless corporate tactics it’d be too heavily weighed down with data and conflict. If it was an America tragedy it’d run the risk of becoming too much of a downer. If it were just the story of families dealing with economic hardship it’d have had to be a much more intimate and weighty script. Plus, it’d be impossible to get this talent together. Instead it’s a jack of many trades and it allows some very good performers to work together and briefly touch on some rather impactful issues in a much more linear and low impact fashion.
Affleck has been on a roll of late and he does some very good work here. Though it’s his story at the center of the film and it’s his family that gets the bulk of the screen time (with Rosemarie DeWitt doing very good supporting work as Affleck’s wife), his main task in the film is to help set the stage and then listen and react to those around him. There are scenes where Affleck has little to no dialogue, whether he’s being lectured by Jones or his wife or seeing how the other half lives through Costner and Oz‘s Eamonn Walker. It’s a nice subdued performance.
But the real heart and soul of the film is Tommy Lee Jones. Chris Cooper’s character’s age and position in the company makes him the most tragically unemployable and he represents that all too real case where somewhere works almost all their life only to have the bottom drop out before they’re able to retire but after they’re hungry and employable enough to rebound. It’s a tough place. My father was in that spot and the fact he died at age fifty-one is partially due to the fact he was out of work at precisely the least fortunate time for him. It’s a horrible situation that many thousands of Americans are in right now and though Tommy Lee Jones is playing a very wealthy man who has already packed his golden parachute it’s his arc and his conscience that keeps the film afloat. The relationship between he an Maria Bello as the corporate “axe man” at first seems frivolous but ultimately shows the delicate balance of worlds quite effectively.
Amidst all the negativity and dread of the subject matter there’s a much needed vitality and optimism ingrained within that allows The Company Men to have a place. It’s not the most entertaining, rich, or transcendent work of the month let alone the year but it is a very well made and well acted bit of drama that showcases that the Hollywood system can still allow for mature work to make it through without compromise or bombast. I’m still not sure who John Wells is as a theatrical filmmaker but I do know his maiden voyage is a success, though not the kind that’s going to leave a deep impression.
Good but not great, The Company Men is definitely worth seeing if only to watch some of the very best we have doing their thing as only they can.
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