Title: The Company Men
Writer-director: John Wells
Starring: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Craig T. Nelson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Eammon Walker
‘The Company Men’ sounds like a cut-rate, straight-to-video mobster movie starring Michael Madsen, but it’s actually (at least in this incarnation) a tale of white collar woe — an ensemble drama, with a heavy-hitter cast, from ‘ER’ creator John Wells that made its play for sociocultural relevance last December, and got lost in the holiday movie shuffle, grossing a meager $4.4 million after its platform release by the Weinstein Company sputtered and failed. So what gives? Is this downsized drama of the shrinking American dream a gem that struck too close to home and merely got lost in the shuffle, or did the market fairly relegate it to ignominy? Well, more the latter, really.
The story centers on Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a hotshot businessman at manufacturing conglomerate GTX who finds his 12-year service rewarded with a small severance package and six months of job placement counseling and assistance when the recession forces lay-offs. As the change and Bobby’s inability to find a new job elicits tension with his wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), GTX president Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) tries, with increasingly less success, to create firewall for other long-time employees, like Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper). Following the mandate of CEO Jim Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), who’s under pressure to keep stock prices afloat, corporate shrinker Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) Bobby finds more dreaded “redundancy,” leaving a stream of pink slips in her wake. Bobby, meanwhile, finds himself reluctantly indebted to brother-in-law Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner), from whom he finally accepts some part-time construction work.
Affleck’s patrician face and demeanor benefits this material, but the conflict, as delineated, all feels rather on the nose. “I’m a 37-year-old MBA loser who can’t support his family!” snaps Bobby; “My life ended and nobody noticed,” muses Phil. It’s surface drama, this stuff, in which everyone eventually self-diagnoses their own insecurities and issues in articulate fashion. Perhaps that’s Wells’ small screen experience coming through. While some lip service is paid to business particulars, the causes of GTX’s implosion and near-shuttering (serving as a proxy for all of American manufacturing) are grossly oversimplified, and basically distilled to, “Greedy stockholders are bad!” The performances here are invested and different degrees of nice, but Wells damningly misappropriates his movie’s focus, and it must be said that Affleck — who as a director has made two films of nicely modulated subtlety but as an actor has a tendency to over-articulate emotion when he’s not sat on forcefully enough — trades in the sort of grand-gesture demonstrativeness that only serves the highlight the material’s more banal qualities.
Still, surprisingly, a second viewing is a bit kinder to the movie. Jones gives one of his better performances of the past decade, full of almost palpable hurt and regret. DeWitt is absolutely lovely, and should be getting better and bigger roles. And it’s nice to see Costner reminding folks of his rumpled, effortless charm. Watching ‘The Company Men’ again, too (or even in a single sitting, with an attuned eye), one is struck by how cinematographer Roger Deakins’ compositions and enervated palette really feed the movie’s melancholic soul. There’s more time, also, to appreciate Eammon Walker’s supporting turn as a fellow out-of-work professional, and Bobby’s cubicle mate at the job training facility. More material with him — to reinforce the very real differences but also certain overlapping similarities of Americans facing long-term unemployment — would have strengthened the film, and made it a bit more unique.
‘The Company Men’ comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, in a regular plastic Amaray case, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track and optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Special features are anchored by a subpar audio commentary track from Wells, which is full of frequent gaps of silence. When he does talk, Wells chats up the contributions of Deakins and the rest of his technical team, and shares a few anecdotes and stories relating to interviews he conducted with people who had been on the job search circuit for months at a time. His comments are wrapped in compassion, and I’m sure sincere, but they come across as kind of analytical and anthropological.
There’s also a 14-minute making-of featurette, which serves up the standard mixture of movie scenes and interviews clips, as well as six deleted scenes, which run a total of seven minutes. Finally, there’s an alternate ending (from the movie’s original festival presentation), which just involves Affleck’s character taking notes from life and playing a little hoops with his son instead of blowing him off. Needing to telegraph uplift, however, Wells went back and did a re-shoot (which was part of the theatrical release and DVD here) involving the let’s-strap-on-our-boots start-up of a new company. You know, rah-rah American spirit and all that… no matter that it rings false. If people are going to sit through a movie with glum undertones, about economic downtown, they’d like to at least be cheerily lied to at the end, thank you very much.
Written by: Brent Simon