The pressures of downsizing
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, January 21, 2011
With the unemployment rate stubbornly dwelling around the double digits, the story of “The Company Men” will no doubt hit close to American homes: A massive corporation responds to flagging profits and shareholder anxiety with layoffs. But writer-director John Wells uses the timely big-picture scenario to dive into the details with a trio of character studies, chronicling how the pressures of downsizing affect three men and their families.
Much like last year’s George Clooney hit “Up in the Air,” this tale smacks viewers with a reality that’s hard to imagine paying money to see in a theater. And yet, here we are.
The first casualty is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a cocky salesman and father of two, who gets his pink slip alongside a handful of other employees. This initial round of staff cuts practically torments Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who’s nearing retirement age and seems convinced he’s next on the chopping block, and infuriates Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), one of the company’s first employees and the CEO’s oldest friend.
Bobby initially seems like the least sympathetic of the three. For starters, he’s obsessed with appearances; he drives a Porsche, boasts about his golf game and tries to keep his unemployment a secret from everyone but his wife. He also tells an interviewer she’s overweight and declares himself above construction work to his brother-in-law (played by Kevin Costner), who happens to work in construction.
And yet, watching Bobby go through the classic steps — denial, anger, self-loathing, acceptance — feels as authentic as it is compelling. He’s not a bad guy, he has just lost track of what’s important, and Affleck nails the role, continuing his ascent from near cinematic oblivion.
Likewise, Cooper’s frenzy is palpable. He’s a self-made man on the brink of a nervous breakdown at the thought of losing his job just as his daughter’s Ivy League tuition payments are rolling in.
And the always dependable Jones does what he does best, whether he’s in “No Country for Old Men” or “The Fugitive,” as the conflicted veteran. In this case, he gets to take the corporate jet on business trips and has the kind of house that requires multiple Christmas trees, but at what cost to others? He admits to loving the $500 lunches and $5,000 hotel suites, yet he’s disillusioned with the business practices of his friend and boss, James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson).
Salinger is one of the movie’s few weak spots. He’s a caricature of an evil CEO, taking home a boatload of money while unloading employees left and right. His superficial character may be especially striking in contrast to the well-drawn and nuanced personalities that make up most of the movie.
Otherwise, the film feels painfully real. Some people manage to push through the depression-fueled inertia of unemployment, some realize that cars and vacations aren’t air and water; others don’t. And what’s most interesting, if devastating, is that, like the layoffs, it all feels a bit arbitrary. Any of the characters could go either way.
In other words, maybe it is worth spending money to see this reality after all.
Contains language and brief nudity.