Upwardly mobile upper-middle-class men deal with the sudden loss of identity, not to mention money, that comes with the loss of their jobs in The Company Men, a compelling and occasionally terrifying movie about the Great Recession.
Because, sure, Ben Affleck and company keep you interested, but the movie also has you considering your own mortgage (what were those terms again?) and trying to figure out how long your savings could last you (how fast could I cancel cable? Do I really need car insurance? How many dinners does one box of Tasteeos contain?). Most ominously, the movie begins not with some sorrowful score or some dark foreshadowing but with a snippet of the radio show Marketplace from the fall of 2008 and then with clips from a variety of news programs, actual clips from actual news to remind you just how freaky late 2008 was.
And it’s during this time that Bobby Walker (Affleck) comes to work, happily reminiscing about the morning’s golf game, only to learn that the company has started layoffs again. He’s troubled to learn that one of his close colleagues has been laid off and then he finds out that human resources official Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) has summoned him to the conference room to explain his benefits package too. When he returns home that afternoon, it’s to a well-appointed Boston suburb where his wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) doesn’t yet realize that their life is about to fall off a cliff.
Bobby is particularly surprised about his firing because he’d been led to believe by division head Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) that his job was safe. But even Gene’s favored employee Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) doesn’t seem safe anymore in this climate. Company head James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) is doing whatever he can to improve the stock price, even if that means gutting the employment rolls.
Simplified, The Company Men is the story of what “cutting employment to raise profits” means in human terms. For Bobby, a man in his 30s with a young family, it is the loss of self and success and class status. He keeps putting off a job offer from his brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner), a home remodeler, who gives Bobby a fair amount of guff for his white-collar-ness. Bobby meanwhile treats Jack’s construction business as a step down, not just economically but in terms of personal worth. Bobby hires guys like Jack; Jack resents guys like Bobby. The men are closer to each other than they realize, but acknowledging that would seem to mean a reconsidering of what it means to be a man for each guy.
For Phil, a man whose résumé includes Vietnam-era military service and who is told by an employment specialist to dye his hair if he wants work, this job might be the last job anyone ever hires him for. Though he’s putting kids through college, loss of a job seems less about loss of money for him and more about a loss of purpose. If he can’t work, if he can’t provide, who is Phil?
Money is not so much a concern for Gene, a man who, even with a big house, a spendy wife and a mistress he meets in nice hotel rooms, probably doesn’t need to work anymore. But he has grown up with the company he works for, seen it go from a business building ships in Gloucester to a massive corporation that has its hands in a variety of industries and is focused on chasing a report that can show profit growth, whether it’s real or not.
To show their stories, this movie gets into all sorts of issues of class and generation that you don’t normally see addressed on screen. On the periphery are even issues of gender and education. I found myself wishing that I were watching not just a movie but the pilot of a new HBO drama that could really take the time to dig into these different characters and find all their layers. There are facets of the story that by necessity get only minimal attention. Bobby — a guy who came from probably a working-class background and overspent his way into the kind of high-end life that was being sold as “middle class” for a while there — is an onion of fascinating issues and questions all by himself. He has a massive mortgage — one that resets itself even higher shortly after he’s laid off — and a Porsche. But the movie no more makes him the guy to blame than it lets him off the hook. His relationship with his wife is a little tense and awful even before he’s fired — if that’s what success gets you, is it really success? There’s so much going on, I was left wanting more.
The Company Men isn’t perfect. The characters are all very solid, the performances all very “fine” but no one stands out as delivering Oscar-winning work. And story-wise, there is so much to examine that some pieces of the story have to be wrapped up too quickly and too neatly. But it’s the first movie I’ve seen about the Great Recession that seems to get the Great Recession and what it means both financially and psychologically.
Rated R for language and brief nudity. Written and directed by John Wells, The Company Men is an hour and 53 minutes long and distributed by The Weinstein Company.