LITTLE ROCK A corporation is an artificial gentleman, a convenient kind of monster imbued with certain rights and privileges in order to participate in the market while limiting the exposure of those who created it. It is a sort of avatar in the affairs of men; while it responds to the instructions of those in control it knows no friendship or loyalty, not even to its parents.
This is a lesson that every generation learns - the corporation is not your buddy, and it loves you only to the extent that you are valuable to it. Sometimes this is hard to remember, for the corporation has a human face. You can bond with your colleagues, be mentored by your bosses, learn the names of your subordinates’ children but when the time comes none of this will matter to the corporation. It is simply a machine for ginning wealth.
This practical knowledge informs John Wells’ well-meant but somewhat clumsy The Company Men; the movie is all about the callousness of the machine in the face of human suffering. While it might be argued that Wells could have better illustrated his point with a scenario less turgid than Ben Affleck growing moist-eyed over his repossessed Porsche, the movie is affecting in the ham-handed way that soapy melodramas can be and among its virtues are fine performances by an excellent cast. (Including Affleck, who handles this scene as well as anyone could expect, and has, at least in my book, completely rehabilitated himself as a moviemaker. He’s good here in a role that could have been ludicrous.)
The obvious antecedent to The Company Men is (the far better) Up in the Air, which explored the world of corporate downsizing from the point of view of one whose business boomed when times got tough. Thisis a more prosaic movie, and its subjects are the more obvious victims of financial downturn - Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a hotshot salesman who is among the first to be let go when GTX, the multinational corporation he works for, suffers a dip in its share price.
Bobby takes it like the spoiled prima donna he is, denying his circumstances and hiding his problems from his brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner), a contractor who here serves as a symbol for the salt-of-the-earth, working-class American. (Never mind that Jack lives a solidly middle-class existence.) He keeps up appearances for as long as he can before tearfully giving up the Boxster.
Phil (Chris Cooper) holds on for a few months longer than Bobby although his circumstances once he’s let go may be more desperate. Though Phil has been with the company 30 years (since back in the days when they actually made things - in GTX’s case ships), he has obviously not taken advantage of any stock options. Instead, he’s nearing 60, out of a job and consultants are suggesting he touchup the gray in his hair.
Not even the head of their division, Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), is safe, though his exit is cushioned by the fact that the value of his company stock jumps $500,000 on the news of his layoff. Jack has been unhappy for a long time, cheating on his wife with a vicious human resources pro (Maria Bello), and as Wells spins it, his getting the boot might actually be the best thing that has happened to him in decades. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting.
When I put it that way, The Company Men sounds like a stolid little movie, a programmatic melodrama that simply must have a little uplift at the end. (And it does.) But it’s a well-executed programmatic melodrama, and there are some scenes that evince real heart, probably because the actors seem naively committed to the project.
We might wonder what’s the big deal, but at least the actors seem to care. And sothey almost succeed in convincing us.
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 03/11/2011
Print Headline: REVIEW The Company Men