Anchor Bay // 2010 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // June 7th, 2011
From multi-Emmy winning writer/director John Wells, The Company Men is a relevant and uplifting motion picture experience inspired by today's headlines.
When a few people in your neighborhood lose their jobs, it's a recession. When you lose your job, it's a depression. The Company Men (Blu-ray) gives a poor economic picture the best possible picture.
Happily married family man Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck, The Town) has it all: a half-million dollar house in a ritzy Boston suburb, a new Porsche, consumer goods out the wazoo -- all the accouterments of material success; that is, until James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson, Blades of Glory), CEO of GTX, decides it's time to fatten the bottom line. Bobby Walker is in the first wave of layoffs, and finds himself out of a job with only a small severance package and twelve weeks of pay. He cannot accept that wrenching changes are on the horizon. His wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt, United States of Tara), the more pragmatic of the two, knowing they are in hock up to their necks, diplomatically suggests that they sell the house and begin to liquidate their belongings in preparation for a pared-down lifestyle.
At the company, a board member and co-founder of GTX, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah), has become disillusioned with Salinger, his friend since they were roommates at Harvard. McClary feels that the company is being undermined and workers sacrificed in a cynical ploy to pump up the projected quarterly earnings figures. Another longtime high-level executive, Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper, Matewan), is afraid that his graying head may be the next to roll.
The story follows the lives of these and several other characters as they struggle with the fallout of the 2008 economic crash and try to accommodate themselves to their new realities.
I admit I was put off, particularly at the beginning, by the movie's upper-middle class take on unemployment. For eighty per cent of the movie-going population, this is truly a view from the heights. Bobby Walker is earning about $160,000 a year, and his colleague Phil Woodward even more. In one scene, McClary, who lives in a mansion in the south end of Boston, idly contemplates a Hepplewhite table his wife bought that sports a price tag of almost seventeen thousand dollars. The CEO, somewhere in the top two or three percent income bracket, is pulling down at least $22,000,000 in salary alone.
Maggie's brother, Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner, Waterworld), is probably a more sympathetic -- or at least accessible -- character in the movie, because he's a working-class shlep, the owner of a barely profitable construction and remodeling company with a grand total of three employees. When he learns what Bobby's pay used to be, he can only shake his head in wonderment and comment, "It's a f***ed up world." Jack's earthy, succinct statement sums up the likely reaction of the average viewer.
Of course, director and writer John Wells is a clever guy. He knows that people watching the movie find Bobby to be an arrogant and barely likeable character, at least in the first act. In one scene, during a heated exchange, Bobby rages at Maggie for letting his country club green fees go delinquent, telling her he has to keep up appearances, that he can't look like just another asshole with a resume. Maggie fires back at Bobby, "You are just another asshole with a resume." After their house is sold and Bobby pensively watches a buyer drive off in his Porsche, we can suddenly relate to his dilemma. He has tumbled from an economic perch only a small minority will ever experience. He has been humbled. He has joined the rest of us.
The lifestyle differences, as we move from one economic level up to the next, are striking. Bobby's parents live in an older, modest neighborhood; they're a couple who are not living the high life, but appear to be financially secure in their retirement. By contrast, their son and his family have virtually no savings, and are awash in a never-ending stream of commodities. Still, even über-consumer Bobby Walker's house and belongings look positively tatty in comparison to his boss McClary's opulent digs. The elegant, museum-quality objects on display -- including McClary's perfectly coiffed and bejeweled wife -- are enough to induce deep envy or contemptuous disgust, depending on one's political proclivities.
The script has no big surprises in store. It's a character-driven movie that compares and contrasts the situations of individuals from a single downsized company. Even though light on plot, the movie works well as a portrait of the hubris of American CEOs who hollow out their own corporations and destroy the livelihoods of their employees. A movie like this, with a mostly character-driven story, relies heavily on the quality of the acting, and the acting is top notch from start to finish, which is not at all surprising given the first-rate cast that populates the movie. John Wells says in his commentary that he cut huge swathes of dialogue from his script, because actors like Tommy Lee Jones, with his expressions and body language, could eloquently convey most of what was required -- often without uttering a single word.
In his entertaining and informative audio commentary, John Wells also discusses his use of hundreds of interviews with real people who lost their jobs in layoffs. Wells interviewed a defensive CEO who had just dumped a large number of employees, and he used the CEO's shameless comments ("We're not a charity" and "We have to look after our shareholders" were a couple) almost verbatim in the movie. Many of the scenes in the movie were based on real events: ex-employees in the parking lot with their white cardboard boxes filled with work paraphernalia; a worker throwing rocks at his old workplace; a pep rally style I-Will-Succeed session for the recently laid off employees.
Other extras are standard fare, including a short featurette, deleted scenes, and an alternate ending. I wish they had stuck by the original ending rather than the vaguely feel good finale that was probably a studio choice after some negative input from the Sundance audience. However, the ending the movie settled on does include a great final sweeping pan shot of the abandoned Fore River Shipyard in Quincy.
This is primarily a dialogue-driven movie, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio serves the actors well with its crystalline clear audio. Incidental sounds are crisp and mostly front and center. The high-definition 1080p video is excellent. Blue tint predominates in many of the office scenes, but when reddish and orange hues are used, skin tones appear pleasingly natural. Wells commented that there was a fair amount of debate on whether to shoot with 35mm film or go with digital. Film won out over the RED camera, but he said it was likely the last time he would use film stock. Since film was used this time around, a natural fine grain is noticeable in some scenes, and is not at all distracting. It's overall a razor-sharp picture, even on distant and highly detailed pan shots. Cinematographer Roger Deakins' excellent camera work shines on this Blu-ray transfer.
The Company Men is a movie with a message -- in fact, several messages: about greed, accommodation to reduced expectations, family versus work, and the country's economic downward spiral. It is earnest, serious, and not the sort of film many Americans -- most of whom consume movies in part to escape from their own grim economic plight -- will view as an entertaining time killer. Which is perhaps why its theatrical release grossed less than a third of its $15 million budget. Actually, the picture is not the stone-cold downer the subject matter implies. The stellar lineup of actors by itself is enough to recommend this picture for at least one viewing. As a bonus it might even urge the viewer to ponder the real reasons behind America's economic malaise.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate Ending
* Deleted Scenes