By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Ah, downsizing during the Great Recession — when the cold and calculated corporate pink slip creates a parade of those moments when, for the folks directly affected, the American dream turns into an absolute nightmare and puffed-up self-images take a scarily precipitous dip down that corporate ladder, sometimes just collapsing.
The meaning of success, upward mobility, and job security all have to be redefined during a calamitous recession like this one, and that’s exactly what the timely, resonant, and thought-provoking contemporary workplace drama The Company Men sets out to do.
It examines the lives of three upper-middle-class men trying to survive and navigate the monumental changes in their lives when the corporation they work for, which needs to lay off hundreds of workers to please the shareholders, suddenly pulls the rug out from under them (and their families — let’s not forget about them).
And because they’ve built family lives around their positions and the generous income it has provided for them, they’ve lost not just their jobs but their identities as well.
Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a successful thirtysomething head of sales and marketing for GTX, a Boston shipbuilding conglomerate, who is suddenly laid off. He turns to his construction contractor brother-in-law, played by Kevin Costner, for carpentry work, but he is just not well suited to it.
And his wife, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, starts cutting expensive suburban corners from their lives that her husband is too proud of (or habituated to to do himself).
Chris Cooper’s 60ish Phil Woodward, who has worked here for 30 years, starting out in a menial job and working his way up, also gets the sack and, because of his age, is a lot less employable than colleague Walker. All of a sudden, with the prospect of job-hunting looming, it matters that his hair is gray.
And Tommy Lee Jones is Gene McClary, who co-founded the company with CEO Craig T. Nelson, his best friend. McClary doesn’t seem to be in any danger of dismissal, but then he articulates his strong disapproval of what the bottom-line-obsessed CEO, whose stock options remain safe and secure as a merger becomes more and more imminent, is doing to those soon-to-be-jobless employees with a record boasting both loyalty and longevity.
Suddenly, the friendship between the co-founders doesn’t seem so close.
The overall picture painted isn’t as bleak as you might expect because, admittedly, these aren’t exactly the most desperate people on the planet. These are upper-income tragedies, to be sure, about folks who have done well but have spent too much because they never really considered the improbable but evidently possible eventuality that now unhappily and unfortunately confronts them.
And maybe the fact that even their creature-comfortable lives — as well as those of their children and, in some cases, their parents — can be turned upside down or at least rejiggered in a flash is the point. After all, we already knew this about blue-collar workers.
Hey, if it can happen to these guys, implies the movie, then it can certainly happen to us.
Debuting writer-director John Wells, best known as the writer and executive producer of television’s “ER” and “The West Wing,” gets uniformly fine work from his ensemble, after fashioning a script about the people who were actually being canned in Up in the Air, for which The Company Men would make an interesting if much less escapist companion piece. Think of it as Down on the Ground.
Or as Job, as in what lots of folks lose as a result of the events described in the similarly topical documentary, Inside Job — another appropriate companion piece.
For all its legitimately earned poignance, the film fails to follow through on all its germane subplots, and features an ending that may be a shade too optimistic given what precedes it. But we’ll forgive all that in the name of how wide an audience the film speaks to.
And we’ll downsize 3 stars out of 4 for the engrossing and relevant The Company Men, a cautionary tale about economic cave-in that provides good, truth-telling company.