Tuesday 16 September 2014

Movie Review: The Company Men (2010)

A corporate downsizing drama, The Company Men faithfully reveals the trauma caused by a contracting economy. The film works as a straightforward chronicle but without capturing any emotional resonance.

In a suburb of Boston, Global Transportation Systems (GTX) is a large corporation specializing in shipbuilding. With the great economic recession in full swing, business is down, the firm's share price is being hammered, and management responds with plant closures and brutal staffing cuts. CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) and his HR manager Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) set their sights on the underperforming division run by Salinger's longtime friend and first employee Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones).

While McClary survives the cuts along with veteran salesperson Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), the casualties include young and ambitious marketing executive Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), who has an MBA, a large house, a larger mortgage, a Porsche, golf club membership, wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and two kids. Bobby struggles to come to terms with the seismic impact to his personal life, and refuses to accept the economic crisis that has descended on his household. But with months passing and no prospects for another corporate job, he has to seriously consider accepting the humiliating offer from his brother in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) to help out on a construction site. Meanwhile, back at GTX, the rift between the considerate Gene and the much more ruthless James grows wider, as another round of cuts looms.

The Company Man has sincere intentions to delve into the human cost of job losses. Writer / director (and co-producer) John Wells does a fine job of looking at the carnage from all perspectives, including the people at the top pulling the trigger (Salinger and Sally); the senior manager caught in the guilt-drenched middle (Gene), the susceptible old-timer (Phil), the young, relatively cheap early victim (Bobby), and the blue collar worker all too familiar with hard times (Jack). The main focus is on Bobby, but The Company Men gives each of the main characters the opportunity to tell a distinctive story.

And through Bobby's story The Company Men does question the priorities of the young and ambitious, as wealth is translated into a mountain of debt that leaves no buffer. A smaller house, a practical car, and less golf would have allowed Bobby to ride out the recession in better shape. At the top, the rich find the ways to get richer. Salinger's reward for initiating deep cuts is an improved share price and the opportunity to sell the company and cash in on a new fortune.

But while the film functions smoothly, it never latches onto an emotional vein. Unlike Up In The Air (2009), The Company Men does not get under the skin of any of the protagonists, and remains a superficial if well-meaning study of people struggling through a crisis. Almost mechanically, Bobby goes through the academic stages of anger, denial, and dejection before being picked up by his wife Maggie once he reaches rock-bottom. Gene demonstrates why he is not the CEO of GTX by displaying too much caring for people rather than share price. And Phil represents the most exposed corporate soldier, the loyal employee who worked his way up, but has been stagnant for a long time and is now too old to be re-trainable. All good stories that unfold with integrity, but in the context of an imploding economy, all also rather predictable, and Wells doesn't find too many new angles to explore.

The cast of dependable stalwarts is consistently good, and while Affleck, Jones, Nelson and Cooper perform admirably with no surprises, Kevin Costner and Rosemarie DeWitt grab the opportunity to shine in excellent supporting roles.

With their company exposed to an economic crisis, all of The Company Men will experience tumultuous losses. For most of the men the pain is raw and visible. And those who emerge from the crisis with much greater material wealth and little empathy for the misfortune of others have actually suffered most of all. They have lost their soul, although they may not know it.

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