At the Arthouse
The Company Men is bankrupt of new ideas
If you’re one of those who grouse that Hollywood doesn’t make films about real, recognizable American life anymore, you’ll likely be tempted by The Company Men. It’s one of the few feature films that has dealt with the current economic crisis, and the loss of American jobs, a subject which writer/director John Wells, in his debut feature, treats with the utmost sincerity. But his good intentions ultimately make for a dull movie, and his approach reminds me of the line Henry James apparently used to use on novice writers who sought his feedback on their manuscripts.
James couldn’t bring himself to be brutally honest, and his tactful reply to these submissions was “you have taken an interesting story and dealt with it straightforwardly,” or words to that effect. The would-be writer would be pleased, not realizing that James had in fact given him or her a devastating review. In terms of storytelling, the straightforward approach usually leads nowhere, which is pretty much the result here.
The film follows three men (it really is about company men) who lose their jobs in a stock-market-driven downsizing at the shipping conglomerate. Bobby (Ben Affleck) is a hot-shot sales director who approaches unemployment with an arrogant sense of self-entitlement. He thinks that he’s earned his Porsche, and has a hard time letting go. The story’s principal arc follows his journey toward humility.
Gene (Tommy Lee Jones) was almost a corporate master, the right-hand man to the CEO. But he wasn’t happy with the way the company had gotten away from its blue-collar, ship-building roots, and he’s more or less relieved when his job goes away. Not so Phil (Chris Cooper), who never hit the jackpot like Gene, and at 60 is now unemployable.
Phil takes a permanently downward spiral, Gene treads water, and Bobby ultimately sinks to being his brother-in-law’s (Kevin Costner) carpenter’s helper. Ultimately (but too late for Phil) the still-flush Gene comes up with an idea that puts many of his old colleagues, including Bobby, back to honest work.
The problem here is the characters and their dilemmas feel generic. Because of his greater anguish, Cooper’s Phil seems real enough, but Bobby in particular just seems like a guy. The relationships between them feel generic as well, more intended to illustrate a point than to feel alive and raw.
And the bright future that Wells points to at the end, when the survivors have all gone back into shipbuilding, seems like a true pipe dream. Shouldn’t they be building wind turbines instead?
In short, the film has an interesting subject, but the storytelling is way too straightforward. Documentaries such as Capitalism: a Love Story and Inside Job have told the same story in much more gripping and powerful ways.