Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) has it all. Second-in-command at the Massachusetts multinational firm GTX, he lives in a Tara-like mansion two Christmas trees in the foyer with a wife who airily asks if she can use one of the corporate jets for a shopping trip to Palm Springs. He spends the occasional lunch hour in a hotel bed with his blond mistress Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), the company's HR chief. When GTX stock spikes after the announcement of a drastic staff layoff, Gene glumly notes he got a half-million dollars richer that morning.
Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) has a lot. GTX's top salesman, he pulls in $125,000 to $160,000 a year the number keeps changing depending on whom he's talking to and spends every bit of it on his nice wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their two kids, plus the showplace home, the Porsche, the golf-club membership, the Patriots season tickets and all the other benefits of upward mobility that Bobby seems to think are inscribed in the Constitution. His inalienable perks.
Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) has something: a mid-level job at GTX. And then he doesn't. "My life ended," he observes, "and nobody noticed."
One by one these men, and hundreds of their GTX colleagues, join the millions who have lost their jobs in the current Great Recession. Gene, Bobby and Phil have worked their whole careers at a company to which they've devoted at least as much time and energy as they have to their families. GTX is their family; and getting fired from it is like being suddenly disowned by your dad. These upper-middle class men probably thought their decades of expert service, and the levels they've risen to, would insulate them from redundancy. But now they've been sent out into a constricted job market, where "working class" means only those who have work.
John Wells's The Company Men is a juicy, judicious drama, and one of the few current movies to address an issue that affects many of the people who will see it or, because reality is too depressing, avoid it. Like Charles Ferguson's documentary exposé Inside Job, which examines the cupidity that led to the 2008 financial meltdown, The Company Men touches on the American core value of knee-jerk optimism: the belief, so deep it's just assumed, that the graph line will keep rising. That presumption is as addictive and disastrous to individuals as it was to investors. Mortgage holders thought housing prices would never drop; Bobby doesn't bother planning for the future because his present was the American dream. Funny thing about dreams: you wake up.
Wells was executive producer of two primetime hits created by movie writers Michael Crichton's ER and Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing and he fills his first film as writer-director with the virtues of intelligent TV drama: character nuance, relevance to the real world, an even pace that bespeaks trust in an audience's interest and intelligence. Written in the first fester of the Recession, and shot in the spring of 2009, the film is playing for a week in New York and Los Angeles, to qualify for this year's Oscars. It begins a wider release Jan. 21.
Gene, who helped build GTX with the firm's CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), figures his stature and status affords him the right to speak the truth. When Salinger argues that he has to fire people so the shareholders can "maximize their investment," Gene glances at the multimillion-dollar art on Salinger's office wall and says, "Sell the f---in' Degas." He tells Salinger and Sally that Phil is irreplaceable; when he hears that Phil got canned, Gene storms off to see Sally. She tells him that he's gone too.
Bobby believes that nothing succeeds like the image of success; still tooling around in his Porsche, he wants to keep his new shame a secret. Cockiness was one of his sales strategies, but that arrogance sours into condescension as he goes to a work-placement center to begin his new, nonpaying job: begging for a break from people he doesn't know. Or, worse, people he does. Even worse than that, his family. The golden boy of the Walker clan has to consider two ugly propositions: that he, Maggie and the kids may have to sell their house and movie in with his parents; and that he may have to take a job offer it may be no more than a taunt from Maggie's construction-worker brother Jack (Kevin Costner). Jack's whispered contempt for Bobby can turn any family dinner into a breeding ground for ulcers; he calls his brother-in-law "just another asshole with a résumé."
They've lost their jobs, and now they've lost their dignity. Phil, pushing 60, needs Botox and hair dye to get his foot in a door; a combat veteran from Vietnam (in his teens, if our math is right), he's advised not to specify which war. And Bobby's glories at GTX mean nothing at other companies, where further indignities await him. For white-collar men of a certain age, the scenes of Bobby sitting in some company's tacky reception area hopeful and desperate as he waits for a short interview with an executive who, if he shows up at all, treats the candidate like a street mendicant will carry the same sick dread as anticipating the monster's arrival in horror movies does for teens; it chills the heart, turns the stomach.
The Company Men has earned some rapturously empathetic reviews from film critics, perhaps because they belong to a job sector that's also suffered severe downsizing in the past few years. The movie is no masterpiece: its music score cues the audience's emotions unnecessarily and too obviously; and there's more wish than fulfillment in a denouement that convenes an army of the expendables to make a fresh start. Wells also does Salinger, the CEO, a disservice by drawing him as a self-deluding charlatan a guy who can't be bothered to calibrate how many employees he could have retained instead of sinking millions into his Taj Mahal of a new office building. And why doesn't the boss fire his old friend Gene himself rather than hand the chore to Sally? Because even a nuanced study needs a cartoon villain.
Like the best TV series, though, The Company Men is rich, thoughtful, assured; it doesn't huff and puff toward hysteria as so many big-screen films do. And its cast manages to suggest the raspy camaraderie of actors who've been around each other for years. Jones, who can make a blank stare look both pensive and homicidal, has the gruff gravitas of a man who's made his way to the top and doesn't lose heart or insight when he hits bottom. Affleck always has trouble simulating high emotion, which he's called on to do once or twice, but he nails Bobby's plunge from hubris to humiliation. And, boy, does Costner get inside Jack, who for half his life has carried a grudge against the more favored Bobby. His rancor has been simmering for so long, it needn't come to a boil to be scalding. He has the rage that men who work with their hands feel for much wealthier men who, he says, "push papers from the In box to the Out box" the artisan's resentment of the scam artist.
Call John Wells an artist and an artisan. He built this thing, which is about a subject that matters its business is everyone's and invests this story of men at the end of a career with the same vigorous subtlety the Sorkin brought to The Social Network, a fable of men at the enthralling beginning. In its solid construction and resistance to the winds of fashion, The Company Men is one edifice that could outlast many an action blockbuster or standard inspirational drama, and maybe the Great Recession itself.