We see their possessions before we meet them, these company men who are about to become redundant. The antique furniture, the ridiculously expensive sports cars, the huge houses with sprawling yards are more than just symbols of success. They’re requirements in this six-figure-salary world.
But as this topical but predictable film by John Wells opens, the U.S. economy is melting down, and Global Transportation Systems, led by its avaricious CEO (Craig T. Nelson dutifully checking in as the requisite corporate villain) is downsizing operations in Boston to placate nervous stockholders. Among the first to be fired is salesman Bob Walker (Ben Affleck), but some of his bosses are right behind him, including Phil (Chris Cooper), who’s pushing 60, and Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), one of the company’s founders whose shipbuilding division is taking the hardest hit. There’s a Company Woman, too, in the form of Maria Bello as a human-resources specialist, present to fire people and to tamp down the testosterone in the film to a manageable level.
The Company Men follows a year of the ups and downs of the men as they venture into the brave new world of under-employment. Gene, of course, has the benefit of stock options; his parachute may be golden, but his guilt is mighty. He frets over the death of U.S. manufacturing and talks a lot about ethics, but he’s not going to lose his house to foreclosure any time soon. But Bob (who can’t quite walk away from his country club), and Phil (who can’t bear to tell his daughter she can’t join the senior-class trip to Italy) are in far worse shape, especially as time passes, and neither finds a job. Phil, at least, has an all-too-clear grip on his predicament.
The petulant Bob blows up at job interviews and refuses to discuss cutting the family budget, though his patient wife (Rosemarie DeWitt, good in a thankless role) tries to explain they can no longer afford the house or the payments on his Porsche. You’d think a guy who once made six figures would be smart enough to figure all this out, but Bob is stubborn. Worse, he rudely snubs his builder brother-in-law (Kevin Costner), who offers Bob a job working construction. We know, though, Bob must eventually acquiesce in order to reassess his priorities and rediscover his soul. Such transformation can only happen through the nobility of a blue-collar job. The film is disdainful of the wealthy and positively entranced with salt-of-the-earth working men, after all.
This sort of unimaginative set-up hampers The Company Men; you are always aware of where the story is heading. Still, the film remains relatively entertaining, simply because the scenario hits so close to home, no matter where you work. The actors — in particular the always-excellent Cooper — gamely delivers their less than evocative dialogue (“My life ended, and nobody noticed,” Phil tells Gene plaintively). And even when the plights of these exceedingly well-off men seem less than dire, the film’s depiction of our human need for fulfilling work and the perils of an unforgiving job market are sadly familiar to us all.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Maria Bello, Craig Nelson.
Writer-director: John Wells.
Producers Claire Rudnick Polstein, Paula Weinstein, John Wells.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 109 minutes. Language, brief nudity. Opens Friday Jan. 21 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Sunrise; in Palm Beach: Shadowood