Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Company Men: Grade B


The Company Men (2010)

Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Tommy Lee Jones, Craig T. Nelson; Writer-Director John Wells.

In Boston, a big shipbuilding company downsizes radically. Affleck, a senior sales executive, is unexpectedly fired. He expects to be in the “corporate relocation center” for only a few days, but after three months the Porsche is gone, the golf club has ejected him, the million-dollar house is foreclosed and the family moves into his parents’ basement. He takes a construction job with his brother-in-law (Costner). The story of his humiliation is a little overripe, but somewhat interesting for showing the trauma in a serious, dramatic way, not the tongue-in-cheek view taken by Up In The Air with George Clooney.

The idea that physical labor is somehow more honest, more noble, than being a sales manager is a melodramatic cliché, and the movie is rife with those. Affleck’s boss, TL Jones, represents "conscience" and is wracked with not-believable anxiety. After a while he loses his job too, but with stock options, he retains his wealth and social status.

Chris Cooper, a colleague of Affleck’s, also gets the axe and his reaction is to drink, curse, throw rocks, and eventually do the Willy Loman thing (from Death of a Salesman). His character adds only cheesy melodrama to the story told by Affleck’s character. But Cooper gives a fine performance. The CEO (Nelson) spouts big boss slogans about share price and mergers. Several times it is noted that his compensation is 17 times that of workers, although in fact, CEO compensation in America is closer to 400 times that of workers, so filmmaker Wells softened that harsh reality for some nefarious reason. So how does it all turn out? Ridiculously. A quick and implausible “happy ending” is tacked on just to bring the story to a close. Affleck has lost his high-flying lifestyle but has rediscovered the love of his wife and son. Aaaawwww!

What makes the movie work is not the screenplay, which is mediocre at best, clichéd at worst. It is the fine performances given by all the male leads, especially Costner, who in a smallish part, is far, far better than in any of his leading man roles. Affleck is strong but stays within himself, opening no new territory. Jones can speak any line well, but his character is not well developed and not believable. The women in the movie are all airhead placeholders. The music is terrible, intrusive and distracting. The theme hits a sympathetic chord but is larded with morality lessons and fails to address the substantive issues it raises, such as the enormous pay disparities, treating people as "human resources," and the need to separate personal from work identity. But on the plus side, besides strong acting among the male leads, the cinematography is thoughtful and noticeably good, and the set designs are perfect in every detail, making the film a little better than average.

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