Review: The Company Men

Office drama does the job


It is easy to see why many American critics disliked The Company Men, the quietly powerful movie debut of ER creator John Wells. Yes, it boasts a spectacular cast, including Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper. But some of it, especially in the first act, exudes an earnest Hollywood high-mindedness that brings to mind a bunch of tanned executives sitting around a pool in the Beverly Hills sun congratulating themselves on their concern for the less fortunate.

Moreover, unlike most Hollywood attempts to deal with the travails of citizens confronted by economic catastrophe, it is about members of the executive class who lose their jobs. This prompted remarks from critics about their inability to sympathise with "rich white men" who are made redundant.

But it is arguably to the credit of writer-director Wells and his team, that he has the courage and curiosity to explore the impact of lay-offs on people who think that they have securely "made it" into the upper middle-class.

More problematic is the film's depiction of the way of life enjoyed by the executives of a fictional Massachusetts transportation conglomerate that was once a shipbuilding company. The main character, a 37-year-old sales associate called Bobby and played by Ben Affleck, lives in a vast suburban mansion and drives a Porsche.

Bobby gets laid off along with the company's entire shipping division because the CEO, played by the excellent, underrated Craig T Nelson, is trying to boost the share price of the company he built with his deputy Gene (Jones), in order to avoid a takeover. Soon Bobby is joined at the outplacement bureau by Phil (Cooper), a more senior executive who has risen to the upper ranks from the factory floor. Phil is nearing 60 so his chances of getting another position are slim (and his trajectory is all too predictable). And Bobby soon finds that his confidence that he will back in a high-paying job is even more misplaced.

He is, at least at first, a smug and unlikeable yuppie who is difficult and dishonest with his sensible wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), and rude to her builder brother (a grizzled Costner) when he offers him a job on a building site.

Eventually, as Maggie predicts, Bobby has to sell the house and Porsche and go to his brother-in-law cap in hand at the site. This will not be forever, because by that time Gene too has been fired - by his best friend the CEO. Though he is wealthy enough not to have to work, he burns to do something for his former employees and also to recapture the satisfaction of building a company and working for an industry that actually makes things.

There are moments when The Company Men feels a little bit like one of those American one-hour, TV "specials", despite elegant cinematography by the celebrated Roger Deakins. But fortunately the film just manages not to founder in heavy sighs and grimaces and melancholy music. As well as a predictable romantic attitude to the joys of manufacturing, it has some interesting things to say implicitly about jobs, success and status in America.

But the best thing is its performances. Costner does his best acting in many years as a gruff, chippy carpenter. There are fine supporting performances particularly by the underused actress, Maria Bello.

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