The Company Men shows faces of downsized workers
Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck and Chris Cooper play the lead roles—three business executives who get permanently laid off during a perfect storm of economic downturn and corporate downsizing. But there are at least two other “company men” of special note and consequence in this pointedly topical drama—an icy CEO (Craig T. Nelson) and a blue-collar building contractor (Kevin Costner).
The first three are the film’s most dramatic and trenchant personages, while the latter two are contrasting catalysts for the dramas that embroil them all. Together they embody five varieties of the American businessman in the present age of outsourcing, right-sizing, and stock-market profiteering.
Writer-director John Wells, the creator of ER in his feature-film debut, makes a lot of this a little too easy to digest, but the emerging picture still has some interesting bite to it, character-wise. Gene McClary (Jones), a key partner in the Nelson character’s firm, is one especially grave figure of conflicted integrity here, and Costner’s Jack Dolan, the hard-nosed small-business man, is the other.
Bob Walker (Affleck) is a gung-ho young hotshot, full of dress-for-success arrogance and, like the others (except for Dolan) living well beyond his not inconsiderable means. Phil Woodward (Cooper), a weather-beaten type who’s risen to executive status from the factory floor, is the most aggrieved and least protected of the bunch.
Nelson’s flatly villainous CEO is the only one of the five on whom the film’s quietly engaging mixture of irony and quasi-sympathetic insight is not conferred. Cooper has the best dialogue scene, Jones has the most moral force, Affleck has the most incisive character complications, and Costner’s slightly bloated hard-ass emerges as the most surprising and perhaps least likely of the film’s protagonists
Wells builds a genuine sense of social and economic free-fall here, especially with the Cooper character, but counters that with perhaps too many signs of hope, however tough-minded. Among the several tantalizing glimpses of these men’s family lives, only Walker’s wife (Rosemarie DeWitt, who played the title role in Rachel Getting Married) gets significantly developed attention.