“The Company Men,” aka “The Supposed Problems of Unsympathetic Rich People” or “Good Actors Stuck in a Mediocre Movie,” tries to be timely, but it’s as out of touch as Pat Buchanan. It aims for “Up in the Air”-level relevance and poignancy with its plot centering on layoffs at a New England company, but it’s more likely to garner yawns than tears. What’s worse is that this isn’t a substandard movie with an equally substandard cast. Instead, first-time feature director John Wells has somehow managed to attract top-level talent Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, and Maria Bello (and Kevin Costner).
Masculinity and identity lie at the barely beating heart of this drama. Affleck stars as Bobby Walker, a star salesman at a Massachusetts industrial company. When he loses his job, he first thinks–and tells the ranks of his fellow unemployed–that he’ll be back earning his previous salary in no time. Soon, he’s joined at the mantra-spewing placement office by co-workers and former executives Gene McClary (Jones) and Phil Woodward (Cooper).
Each man deals with his new station–or supposed lack thereof–in life differently. Bobby searches desperately for a job while still trying to maintain his upper-class lifestyle, even though he’s no longer making his middle-class salary. His wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) finally gets him to work in construction with her antagonistic brother (Costner), who has troubles of his own. Meanwhile, Gene struggles to leave the mansion, while Phil competes with much younger men for jobs.
Affleck’s Bobby Walker is completely unsympathetic in his arrogance, and even his inevitable fall (thank you, tell-all trailer) doesn’t really inspire great feeling from the audience. He’s Cocky-with-a-capital-C throughout most of the film, from his brief time in the narrative as a successful salesman to his job loss and subsequent search. There are plenty of people in the real world who lose their non-six-figure jobs (particularly now), and it’s hard to feel sorry for a man who won’t give up his Porsche or his country club membership when many families struggle to pay for food in similar situations. Obviously, these are real problems shared by real people, but it’s hard to care when there’s such excess on display at the beginning of the film. Though Bobby Walker is supposed to be an everyman, it’s far easier to identify with Affleck’s career-criminal character in “The Town.”
While “The Town” reinforced that Affleck actually can act (and proved “Gone Baby Gone” was no fluke in regards to his directorial skills), he doesn’t do anything interesting here, making his character even less likable. Meanwhile, Cooper and Jones are in a grizzle-off, but they’re always watchable, even if their characters aren’t.
Best known for his work on “ER” and leading the post-Sorkin (aka sub-par) era of “The West Wing,” Wells makes his feature directorial debut here. With him also working as screenwriter, “The Company Men” feels like an overlong, preachy TV drama with dialogue that would’ve made Sorkin cringe (or at least sniff derisively). There are good elements here (namely the issue of who are you when you’re no longer defined by your job or your paycheck), but the execution comes up short. The actors make it all sound better than it is, and any good scenes should be credited first to them.
Saying that Wells’s involvement causes the film to have the look of a TV show insults plenty of well-shot series currently on the air. What’s most surprising is the presence of Coen brothers D.P. Roger Deakins, whose signature shooting style is nowhere to be seen. The cinematography is bland and could have been the work of any nameless director of photography, not the Oscar-nominated master behind “A Serious Man” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” It’s simply another bland element of an already bland movie that could have been so much more. [C]