Poor little rich boys
The Company Men
It is, as David Mamet reminds us, potentially the worst of all possible epithets. Witness Al Pacino to Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glen Ross: “What you’re hired for is to help us. Does that seem clear to you? To help us. Not to fuck us up. To help those who are going out there to try to earn a living. You fairy. You company man!” Even the predatory chest-thumping homophobic solipsist has his first principles. Even he knows enough to at least pretend that comradeship with his fellow worker matters more than saving face with management. The company man, on the other hand, cannot be redeemed, for it is he who bears so much responsibility for the corrosion of the American Dream.
Maybe so. But is he at all pitiable? That’s an open question in writer-director John Wells’ The Company Men, which uses the dramatic feature film as field notes toward an anthropology of corporate downsizing. Wells’ solemn study seems timelier now than Mamet’s play-cum-film was in the early 1990s, so it’s too bad that the former is also less vicious, less essential.
For decades, Wells has held court as an executive producer in American television, presiding over ER, Third Watch and The West Wing, among other standouts in the endless march of prime-time soaps. Now he’s finally traded up to the big screen, harnessing plenty of scale-appropriate star power with Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones. And his movie feels like a strong, solidly credentialed TV show.
This market being what it is, it’s not always enough for a man to coast on his credentials, or so Wells’ suddenly redundant industrialists learn when the Great Recession comes to their Boston-based multinational transportation conglomerate. Bobby (Affleck), the hotshot, has a big house and a big head. He golfs and gloats and guns the engine in his Porsche. He can’t even admit that he’s lost his job, let alone accept another from his resentful blue-collar brother-in-law (Costner), a lowly carpenter (and that’s a clever touch: salt of the earth as salt in the wound).
Phil (Cooper) is the seasoned executive who came by his high status honestly, by working his way up from the bottom rung. Now his ultimate reward for making the company his life is to lose it. Gene (Jones), a co-founder, has sense enough to give his wife a withering look when she asks to borrow one of the corporate jets for a shopping trip to Palm Springs. Less sensibly, perhaps, he has his human resources executioner (Maria Bello) for a mistress; eventually she fires him, too.
As Wells bounces around among his characters and describes their crumbling complacency, we can feel the contaminating radiation of economic implosion. But the ensemble approach is self-diluting, too. It becomes clear that Wells is better at gradual portraiture than dramaturgy; because The Company Men is a film and not a TV show, it reads as a gathering of good performances in search of a greater meaning. One virtue of the season-long episodic structure—whether taken in by old-fashioned appointment viewing or by a binge on DVDs—is the loose freedom of casually checking in on multiple characters and feeling our lives moving along as theirs do (even if only in circles), without the urgency to wrap things up within a couple of captive hours. The great films can make those captive hours seem like whole lifetimes, of course, but they depend on a metabolism that Wells has yet to master.
And so he corners himself into a contrived denouement: the swell of anthemic music as shorthand for optimism and the unconvincing call to scale down our priorities, take a deep breath, do a quick bootstrap tug and just get back to work. Where’s the coruscating rage of Mametism when we need it?
Still, and not least because Roger Deakins’ darkly glinting cinematography supplies just the right kind of polished gloom, the men of The Company Men do give off a certain shine. If their familiar and presumably pitiable woe is not entirely cathartic, it is at least as watchable as a collective cringe-worthy life crisis can be, and quite paradoxically diverting for a depressingly realistic look at a headline-hogging national hardship.