The Company Men works sort of like a guy’s take on a Lifetime Original Movie. It’s sappy, it’s sentimental, and it’s superficial. But instead of serving as a resume line for some unknown actors, this glossy fiasco unfortunately drags some big-name talent through the muck of its pandering, self-important script.
The movie tells the story of Bobby Walker, played by Ben Affleck, a confident upper-mid level manager. As the story begins, Walker’s company is downsizing and one of the first victims is Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), an older, former blue-collar guy who has worked his way up to management.
Though Walker assumes his job is safe — and the movie briefly seems like it might be about post-layoff survivors’ guilt — things don’t turn out so well and he’s sent packing. Pretty soon Walker is at a hiring agency, selling his Porsche, and moving out of his McMansion. Eventually, he is even forced to do manual labor.
Yet while the process of a cocky snob learning a lesson or two can certainly make for an entertaining movie — Iron Man is a great example — The Company Men comes off as detached from the economic recession it presumes to represent. Yes, times are tough for Walker, but they’re a hell of a lot tougher for a lot of other people.
Those people — who never make six-figure salaries and would be grateful for something in the low fives — are mostly only hinted at. Kevin Costner does show up — apparently channeling the dregs of inane characters in his other terrible movies — sweating, grunting and showing that hard work conquers all.
But, as a construction worker, even Costner’s character comes off as out of touch. After all, wasn’t construction one of the hardest hit industries in the recession? Perhaps there are some small construction businesses that can still take on employees for charity, but they probably shouldn’t have been the ones depicted in a movie about hard times.
Without giving away too much, the main character’s trajectory in this movie suggests that bad things happen, but that the worst is reserved for other people. It also argues that with a little bit of elbow grease, even insurmountable odds can be overcome. Of course, that message should resonate with people, but it also leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For example, what if you never had a Porsche to sell?
Maybe that isn’t what this movie is about. And rich white collar managers who lose their jobs are people too. But it’s nevertheless difficult to have sympathy for a protagonist who is rich at the beginning and [spoiler alert] just a little bit less rich at the end.
To be fair, not everything about The Company Men is awful. Production value is generally high and, more importantly, the actors give it their all. Affleck, who knows a thing or two about being in horrible movies, probably chose the film for its presumed seriousness. And though it fails where other recent Affleck dramas have succeeded, the actor manages to convincingly portray someone learning to not be a prick. Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones — who plays yet another suit on the rocks — are even better to watch.
But even excellent actors can’t save a movie that is only vaguely aware that everyone is not upper middle class. Messages about hard work and perseverance come off as cliche and trite. The movie seems preachy, yet simultaneously ignorant. And in the end, the cross section of America The Company Men tries to portray comes out feeling flat, irrelevant and poorly rendered.
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