Movie Review: The Company Men (2010)

Home companion to Inside Job ____ 7.5/10

The Company MenPhil Woodward (Chris Cooper): My life ended and nobody noticed.

It seems to me this film makes the perfect companion to another film I reviewed recently, Inside Job, an investigation of the so-called Bailout of 2008. It simply seems that if one knows who raided—and continues to raid—the Great American Cookie Jar, one has a fair notion of fundamental causes of economic malaise… the kind that causes credit contraction, widespread business failures, and massive layoffs such as the one that afflicts the lead character in The Company Men: Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck).

Screenplay John Wells
Directed by John Wells

Ben Affleck … Bobby Walker
Rosemarie DeWitt … Maggie Walker
Tommy Lee Jones … Gene McClary
Chris Cooper … Phil Woodward
Maria Bello … Sally Wilcox
Craig T. Nelson … James Salinger
Kevin Costner … Jack Dolan

Bobby is a comer, an affable, energetic VP of sales for GTX corporation. GTX is a New England firm that was at one time a premier shipping manufacturer, and in 2010 through mergers and acquisitions has become a holding corporation for diversified services to the shipping industry. In the the introductory scene Bobby waltzes into a board meeting crowing about the fact that he just shot an 86 in golf at the country club. Somber faces greet him, then direct him toward another room where he gets the bad news: “Company going in a different direction, needs to make some changes, make efficiencies in personnel, blah, blah, blah.” In other words, “You’re fired.”[1]

At this point I might well go into my radical libertarian econ rant, but I know several of you are watching for it and will tune me out. So let me simply refer readers to my long-touted fast-acting financial prescription for America, one that will provide real earnings for every man, woman, and child in the US of $10,000 annually (current Federal Reserve Note value as of this microsecond). But the business schools and 60 Minutes haven’t called me, so I doubt that my prescription will be implemented in time to avoid further destruction of the US economy. My solution certainly wasn’t available in the realistic fictional 2010 company environs of Bobby Walker.

After the notice, the Company Men story becomes the sad human-cost story of life in our system as the system ceases to fulfill human needs. How many 30-something or young-40-something male executives all over the country—apparently on the fast track, wife and children well-provided for, sitting on top of the world, a glint in the eye and a spring in the step—are plastered by a tsunami of disemployment they didn’t see coming? Several other films have the theme of job-and-way-of-life lost, I’m trying to think of the more serious ones, but right now what comes to mind is the 1983 classic starring Michael Keaton and Teri Garr: Mr. Mom.

It will be useful to watch Mr. Mom again, because it was nearly 30 years ago, during a stagnant period for the automotive industry, and the Michael Keaton breadwinner character was an engineer… not a sales executive like Bobby Walker. Back in those days, America still clung to some semblance of manufacturing occupation… it was commonly held that the ability to ‘make things,’ to ‘build things,’ real stuff like automobiles, ships, trains, clothing, steel products, wood products, electronics—yes, do you remember when American white and blue collars made the best products in the world, especially electronics?—was a good thing. People took pride in turning out good stuff, the best stuff, and they were paid enough at all levels to make it worthwhile.

Fast forward 30 years, and the idea of Americans building anything is considered quaint. Sure, free market ideas apply with respect to division of labor, that as a country goes through the earlier farming and manufacturing phases, it’s natural and more cost-effective to distribute the work among those who do the work more efficiently. A good share of reduction in American manufacturing can be traced to ‘we add more value to production higher up the creative food chain.’ Still a large share of loss of ‘building things’ is a consequence of the general processes of ‘wealth extraction’ by the Cartel that’s making the poor poorer and the rich richer… only these rich aren’t rich as a consequence of production.

As Bobby Walker’s boss, #2 chief executive Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), puts it, “Today the company lays off 100 employees, tomorrow my stock value rises half a million dollars.” What is the Wall Street, mixed economy perversity that makes layoffs an indication of corporate health? But The Company Men isn’t preachy or prescriptive, indeed, until you get toward the end you aren’t even thinking about the general economy. Instead, your heart is going out to Bobby Walker, to his wife—Rosemarie DeWitt plays a great role as Maggie, written as practically a leading character—and family, and to the others in his predicament.

A major appeal of the film lies in the acting talent. Chris Cooper plays Phil Woodward a longstanding GTX employee who rose from the manufacturing floors into management, and has never worked anywhere else. How he responds to being let go, in a second wave after Walker’s firing, is touching. How many times has that downer scenario been repeated here, there, and everywhere? Another talent is Kevin Costner, who plays Maggie’s brother Jack Dolan: Jack has a construction company and offers Bobby some work. After months of resisting, Bobby finally joins Jack’s team… and learns what real work is.

I find several of the other characters attractive,[2] but none more so than Tommy Lee Jones’ Gene McClary, who holds out for some semblance of corporate morality. Another observation: the office scenes, the boardroom drama are completely believable. Like the interchange between McClary and CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) after a board meeting where Salinger is basically going to gut the company and get his parachute: McClary, looking Salinger straight in the eye: “Jim, you said we could always talk… and this is wrong.” Salinger: “I’m late for a phone call.”

The IMDb rating is decent at 6.8, and it’s a well-constructed labor of love by writer/director Wells. It rings a bell for those of us who realize the Old Paradigm economy is done like a dinner, and doubly so for those who have invested a good share of their lives in that dying system. But Mr. Wells doesn’t leave you on a hopeless note. It’s a simple movie from the heart that goes straight to the heart, meticulously directed and sensitively acted. Very timely.

[1] You can tell it’s 2010, too, because considering Bobby’s rather elevated position, back when the reviewer was laid off in 1993 someone like Bobby would have received at least a year’s worth of full pay severance and benefits, possibly two years. In the 2010 movie, Bobby gets three months. Slam, bam, thank you, Sam.

[2] Maria Bello plays an executive of Bobby Walker’s approximate level, who also serves as McClary’s sharp-witted, (ostensibly) tender-hearted mistress. It never ceases to amaze me that every film in which I’ve ever seen Bello, she goes topless; does she bare them in The Company Men? Not gonna tellya.

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