The Company Men may simply be a case of a movie that’s trying to do too much at once.
Director John Wells’ drama, centered around the current economic crisis, follows three men working a giant corporation called GTX. This can stand in for any major company in the country, provided their more concerned with the bottom line than with their employees well being.
GTX is downsizing when the movie begins, and almost immediately young executive Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) finds himself on the wrong end of a pink slip. An older employee, Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is terrified that if he gets fired his age will prevent him from getting another job. Meanwhile, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), one of the companies founders, tries to fight the layoffs on ethical grounds, only to have his words go unheard by head honcho James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson).
In its early stages, the film mostly follows Affleck. At first his character is confident that his unemployment will be temporary, and why shouldn’t he be? He’s young, has a great resume, golfs at a country club, drives a Porsche, and carries himself with an all around corporate feel. But as weeks of unreturned calls and botched interviews go by, reality starts to set in.
What’s interesting here isn’t just the pain that Affleck goes through, but the self-deception he engages in to keep up appearances. When his wife’s blue collar brother (Kevin Costner) offers him a job at his carpentry business, he snubs him because he thinks he’s above it. We know that he’ll have to swallow his pride if he wants to keep providing for his family, it’s just a matter of wondering when he’ll realize this. This is easily the film’s best storyline, and one that easily could’ve been an entire film by itself.
But instead, midway through the film, we start splitting more time with Cooper and Jones, who both (shocker) run into their own work related problems that create new stories for the film to follow. They each have interesting and engaging moments, but cutting between three stories of unemployment soon ends up feeling like too much of the same without letting us get the amount of depth we could from only following one of them.
Despite all this, though, the performances are rock solid. Affleck is perfectly cast, and this performance continues a string of strong work that’s almost (read: almost) enough to make us forget Paycheck. Cooper and Jones are both solid, which shouldn’t be a surprise at this point, but the unexpected gem of the bunch is Costner. He brings a certain effortlessness to his Bostonian carpenter without making him a caricature.
In a way, maybe The Company Men isn’t as tough as it needs to be. There are certainly moments of anguish and pain, but there is a still a feeling of Hollywood sheen surrounding the picture holding us at bay. We never truly feel the desperation of the situation. Across the country there are thousands of people living out this scenario every day. This movie never makes that struggle feel real enough for those of us who haven’t experienced it.
And when it’s over, we realize that it never felt like anything more than a movie to begin with. It has a noble aim, but its execution and delivery come up short of doing it justice. Instead of trying to cover all the angles, it could’ve been content to focus on one and deliver a truly meaningful, powerful story. And that’s the movie that this story needs.
The Company Men is solid, but never as powerful as it wants to be: B-