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Even though it's a festival that presents quirky comedies and bleak documentaries side-by-side, Sundance is known for a certain kind of movie-- usually challenging, often dark and sardonic, and trying valiantly to distance itself from whatever might be "typical" Hollywood, regardless of how successful they are in pulling that off.
Which is why it's surprising to come here and see something like The Company Men, which despite occasionally bleak and honest moments plays more by the Hollywood rules than anything I've seen so far. Basically a story about what happens in Up in the Air after Ryan Bingham leaves the office, it's an incredibly timely and occasionally poignant story that still manages to sell itself short when it goes for easy narrative conclusion rather than actual honesty. It's a brutal world out there for the unemployed, and writer-director John Wells does an excellent job of exploring many sides of that before giving up and gathering us all together for a group hug near the end.
Though ostensibly about three lead characters played by Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones, Affleck's character Bobby is the centerpiece, a rising star on his way to CEO who is unceremoniously sacked while his company-- some sort of shipping and manufacturing conglomerate-- tries to restructure before selling itself off to the highest bidder. Bobby's life is typical upper class suburban, with a gorgeous wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and two kids and two shiny cars and a sprawling house filled with all the right touches. Bobby spends much of the film in denial, working tirelessly and futilely with a placement agency to find work, while his wife frets about paying the mortgage and secretly stops paying the country club dues.
Cooper's character is a slightly older version of Affleck's, and when he gets sacked later in the film it's a much harder road to re-employment-- gray hair and service in Vietnam, as explained by a curt employment agent, are not signs of experience but of baggage. Jones's character is much better off, having founded the company alongside the current CEO (Craig T. Nelson, pure boring corporate evil) and standing to make a big profit off stock options no matter what happens to his job. But he's unhappy, of course, engaged in an affair with the icy corporate titan played by Maria Bello and nostalgic for the earlier days in which, somehow, shipbuilding was a noble cause.
The problem isn't so much that Company Men is a movie about things we already know-- Wells and his cast do an excellent job portraying the humiliating and dehumazing experience of unemployment, even for people well-off enough to be worrying about whether they'll have to sell their Porsches. There was simply a way to tell this story that felt more truthful, more frank about how hard it is for someone in their 60s to start over, how a guy like Affleck probably wouldn't be all that great at starting a new job as a carpenter with his brother in law (Kevin Costner, unfortunately part of the most irking subplot). Despite a few nods to complete despair, the movie takes the easy way out nearly every time, leaving the audience with a false sense that, if you just try hard enough, the Great Recession all works out in the end.
The Company Men didn't need to be Cormac McCarthy-style bleak to succeed, but it makes enough nods in that direction to get the audience to root for it, only to disappoint. Obviously Wells was aiming for more commercial appeal with the big stars and the narrative sugarcoating, but in doing so he's made a movie that fails to be exciting or revelatory aside from a few sharp scenes. The star caliber and the strong performances (Cooper in particular is great, as always) will probably get distributors interested, but audiences will be forgiven for avoiding a movie that doesn't tell that all that much more than they know from simply looking around at their unemployed neighbors suddenly set adrift without purpose.
For more of our Sundance 2010 coverage, click here.
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