Judge Clark Douglas is known as a company man. He'll keep you company all day long, if you let him.
Our review of The Company Men (Blu-ray), published June 7th, 2011, is also available.
In America, we give our lives to our jobs. It's time to take them back.
"They used to build things they could actually see. A man knew his worth back then."
Facts of the Case
The Company Men tells the story of three white-collar businessmen attempting to readjust to new lives in the wake of the economic downturn. Rising star Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck, The Town) has just been laid off and quickly discovers how difficult the job market can be even for a seasoned professional. Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper, Adaptation knows that he may be next on the chopping block and wonders how he'll pay for his family expenses. Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men) debates the ethics of the firings and contemplates whether he's willing to sacrifice his soul for a few extra dollars.
The primary storyline of John Wells' The Company Men seems a bit superficial, to be honest. Shortly after Bobby Walker is fired, he begins scoffing at just-trying-to-be-helpful motivational speakers, he harshly dismisses Jack Dolan's (Kevin Costner, Mr. Brooks) construction work job offer and he insists on maintaining an expensive lifestyle for the sake of keeping up appearances. It quickly becomes obvious that Bobby will be selling his Porsche, putting up vinyl siding and shouting "Yes I can!" platitudes by the third act. This particular storyline plays out about as unimaginatively as you might expect it to.
Fortunately, the film as a whole isn't as thin as its central plot. There's a lot of good material tucked away in the corners; adding a measure of depth and nuance to the proceedings that makes The Company Men feel a lot more substantial than it ought to. The film isn't a feel-good story with a bit of economic jabber thrown in as a desperate attempt to add relevance; it's an exploration of corporate America with a feel-good slice of Hollywood cheese built in to make the whole thing more easily digestible. This stuff isn't as absorbing or resonant as Jason Reitman's somewhat similar Up in the Air or even HBO's stock market saga Too Big to Fail, but it works in spite of itself.
One of The Company Men's biggest attributes is its focused yet muted sense of anger. It is not a venomous diatribe against corporate America, but rather a quiet-yet-firm statement: "Shame on you. You should be better than this." It's not just that employees are laid off; it's that employees are being laid off while the profits of the men at the top are skyrocketing upwards. It's not just that loyal employees are being let go; it's that the oldest, most experienced employees who will have the hardest time finding new employment are being let go. "There's just enough young people being let go to prevent a lawsuit," Gene McClary tells the rest of the board. "We're not doing anything illegal," a board member says. "I thought we were holding ourselves to a higher standard than that," Gene replies wearily.
Before long, all three of our primary characters find themselves out of work, and it's fascinating to observe the ways in which they respond. Bobby is initially frustrated, but is confident enough in his impressive resume that he doesn't worry too much about his future. Imagine his horror when he discovers that there are countless other men with equally impressive resumes fighting desperately for jobs that offer a fraction of their previous salary. The 58-year-old Phil quickly spirals into despair as he discovers his age is preventing him from finding any kind of employment. "Why don't you just retire?" people tell him, without realizing that Phil simply can't afford to stop working. Gene has more than enough money to live on for the rest of his days, but nonetheless falls into a state of deep reflection: where did the company he helped create lose its way?
The film benefits considerably from spot-on casting, as Wells has tapped actors with very distinctive screen presences which are perfectly suited to their roles. Affleck, Cooper and Jones are all capable of delivering businesslike professionalism, but their individual skills are highlighted when things turn south: Affleck captures a slightly dense befuddlement coupled with building frustration, Cooper becomes antsy and starts slipping into a sinkhole of desperation and Jones simply allows his face to settle into that striking position of deep, unyielding sadness (was there ever an actor who looked so terribly in need of a hug?). Meanwhile, Kevin Costner quietly steals every scene he appears in simply by so effectively embodying a no-nonsense blue-collar work ethic. It never fails to amaze me how Costner has transformed himself as an actor in recent years; his vanity has decreased considerably and his screen presence seems infinitely more natural. Craig T. Nelson (Parenthood) has a handful of nice scenes as the man who runs the entire company.
The DVD transfer is respectable enough. The film's palette is very similar to the aforementioned Up in the Air (though perhaps we should blame corporate America rather than the filmmakers for that), but it boasts numerous impressive visuals thanks to the cinematography of the great Roger Deakins (there were numerous moments in which I wished I had been watching the film in hi-def). Detail is acceptable if less than dazzling, though black levels are fairly impressive. Audio is rather low-key and muted for the most part; I had to turn my speakers up a few notches higher than usual to catch everything the actors were saying. It's a solid track, but there's nothing that will cause your speakers to rumble or grab your attention. Extras include a commentary with Wells, some deleted scenes, a 12-minute alternate ending that's basically just a slight re-arrangement of the concluding scenes (the changes are so insignificant that I don't think it's worthy of inclusion on this disc, much less prominent promotion via a sticker on the front of the slipcase) and an EPK-style making-of featurette (14 minutes).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My biggest complaints are with the superficial nature of the Affleck storyline, but I was also disappointed to note how underwritten the female characters are. Rosemarie DeWitt (Mad Men) and Maria Bello (A History of Violence) are talented actresses; they deserve better roles than what they're handed in this film.
I also wish the film had been a little larger in scope. It briefly acknowledges the plight of blue-collar workers, but it underplays that plight and focuses mostly on the troubles of guys who were working at six-or-seven-figure jobs before they were let go. The troubles these guys have are nothing compared to what most Americans go through when they lose a job. Still, I realize that the movie was attempting to provide us with a look at a particular segment of society, and it does its job in that regard.
The Company Men may not be the unforgettable snapshot of 21st Century Corporate America it could have been, but it's also not the disposable bit of fluff it could have been. It's worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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