A recession can be a gold mine for great drama, as portraying the events of a recession can be poignant and cathartic for audiences. In his newest film, The Company Men, writer/director John Wells tries to capitalize on this idea, attempting to craft a character piece that shows how the recession effects the various socio-economic classes, but fails to make something thought-provoking or distinctive.
Though replete with an incredible cast that most certainly does its best with the material, particularly Ben Affleck, there simply isn’t enough creativity employed by Wells in his screenplay to keep movie-goers engaged from start to finish. Employing a series of tropes, stereotypical characters, and overt messages condemning lavish lifestyles and corporate greed in a time of lay-offs, the film lacks any real depth and fails to evoke any emotional response in spite of what should be poignant content.
The movie centers on the fictional Global Transportation Systems, a company feeling the pressures of the economic downturn, and three of its employees: Bobby Walker (Affleck), a family man who walks into the office after a weekend of golf and relaxation only to discover that he’s been fired; Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a man who finds himself on the bubble and constantly afraid of losing his job; and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), one of the company’s co-founders and self-appointed spokesperson for the lower-level personnel. Working from three separate perspectives – the middle-aged man trying to support his family, the helpless executive and the struggling, aging worker – the film looks at what happens to individuals at all levels when they suddenly find themselves unemployed.
As can be expected when you have an ensemble cast that includes some of the greatest male actors working today, the film’s greatest strength is the performances, but it’s Affleck who establishes himself as the best of the group. The main focal point of the film, he perfectly displays the slow deterioration of confidence that comes with month after month of joblessness. Bobby Walker literally goes through the five stages of grief throughout the film, starting in absolute denial, working his way through anger, depression, and bargaining before finally accepting where he is, and Affleck never misses a beat. Though the film takes place over the span of more than a year and compresses the timeline to less than two hours, his emotional shifts never feel jarring or unbelievable.
Jones, playing a board member with enough power to hear the layoffs being organized but not enough to stop them, is the most sympathetic character in the film and particularly brilliant in scenes where he faces off against Craig T. Nelson, the company’s unflinching and unemotional head executive. Also making a great turn is Kevin Costner, who plays Walker’s brother-in-law. Playing the blue-collar construction worker, Costner is the source of most of the film’s levity and manages to excel with less screen time than almost all of his male counterparts.
What causes the terrific performances to go to waste, though, is the archetypal characters and the blunt, unimaginative storytelling. The film is painfully aware of the times that it’s being made in and tries to capitalize by creating a stand-in for every protagonist and antagonist in a recession, be it the guy who gets laid off but is too old to get another job or the CEO who doesn’t care about people, only money and the bottom line. Cooper is given all of two emotions to play over the course of the film, worried about his job in the beginning and depressed about losing his job in the end. Costner is a token construction worker who makes all of the men with MBAs look bad because they have six-figure salaries and aren’t real men. There isn’t a single character that we haven’t seen multiple times before. Making things worse, the message that Wells is trying to get across is often ham-fisted and forced. There are only so many times an audience can watch Tommy Lee Jones looking shamefully at the decadence that surrounds him before they shout at the screen, “We get it!”
The Company Men is an attempt to put an on-going reality on the screen. Wells has the star-power and performances, but crafts a predictable story with story points that audience members can forecast from the start. As compelling as the actors may be, they’ll always fall flat without a solid and interesting story backing them up.