Monday, January 09, 2012

I'm confident all these dismissals will stand up under legal scrutiny.

The Company Men (2011)

Okay, I got the economy on the brain; subconsciously I’ve been selecting films that deal with our current situation and only just realized it. I also watched Margin Call recently and loved it, so yes, the economy is on my mind. Not that it’s a bad thing, but I will make an effort to vary the themes in the next one, Dear Readers. I kinda feel like a CEO promising shareholders the stock price will get better in the next quarter, which interestingly enough, happens in The Company Men. However, I am nowhere near as ruthless as the corporate sharks; I am merely a guppy.

The film examines the effects of corporate downsizing at a transportation company in Boston. Bobby Wheeler (Ben Affleck) seems to have all one could want living the American Dream: a six-figure salary, Porsche, country club membership, a big suburban house and wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt). However, it all gets thrown out the window when Bobby is given his walking papers in a large round of redundancy firings. Bobby enters the world of the unemployed; the company has rented office space at a job search center to help the newly fired with their resumes and he goes with displeased reluctance. Bobby’s severance and savings can’t cover his expenses, yet he lives in denial; believing he will get a job in short time he heads to the club for a round of golf, only to discover the fees haven’t been paid in over a month. The walls of the white-collar lifestyle come crumbling down as Bobby and Maggie count the pennies, sell the house, the Porsche and move into his parents’ home. Their son even returns the X-Box given to him as a Christmas present. Bobby is then forced to take a job installing drywall with his brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), a move he sees as beneath him.

Soon after there is another round of firings and the latest victim is Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a middle manager who worked his way up from the factory floor to the corporate offices. At 60, Phil is unemployable because of his age and, like Bobby, struggles with the growing pressures of a working poor lifestyle with children to support. Phil is a man who defined himself by his job; he believed he was valued by the company and was of great importance, only to realize too late that in the world of finance, stocks, and shareholders, everyone is expendable when it comes to serving the bottom line. When times are good, everyone is made to feel like they are part of the team; when times get tough, those not at the top quickly learn the team just got smaller and they’re on the outside looking in.

The company founders, James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), present opposing viewpoints on the nature of a corporation. McClary believes a corporation should remain loyal to its employees, while Salinger understands that corporations survive by maximizing profits and income at the expense of said employees to maintain the bottom line. No one, it seems, is immune from this philosophy as McClary is fired from his position by senior HR manager Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) who delivers the bad news to fired employees throughout the company. McClary, being an executive with stock options, is in a better financial position than Bobby, Phil and others after being fired; he doesn’t face the pressure of seeking immediate employment to survive. However, the recent gutting of employees combined with his corporate outlook weigh heavily upon his shoulders.

While the actors are fine in their performances, it’s difficult to connect with them because they are executives, unlike the vast majority of us who work for said executives. These people define themselves by what they do, and that in turn defines their self-worth. However, none of the characters are ever really fleshed out because they are presented as economic units rather than people; they are numbers on paper that inevitably end up on one side of the balance sheet or the other. It doesn’t matter if you are a good parent, an honest person or a liar; either you help further the corporation or hinder it. The characters only become interesting when they overcome their attachment for the trappings of the American Dream and realize their self-worth (or not).

It is Costner’s character who seems the most real in the film; Jack runs a small construction company where he and his crew restore houses one at a time. Jack is the embodiment of an honest wage for an honest days’ work, although even he is not totally immune to the economic climate that hovers over the country. At the same time, he does not need nor want the materialistic trappings that have enveloped Bobby; the pretenses many of us are conditioned to strive for and define our success, worth and place in society. Jack, however, is the opposite; he lives in a modest home, drinks beer, plays football with his kids and seems generally happy with his life and what he has built.

There is something more tangible with hammering nails, installing drywall or laying siding than working with numbers on a computer, and writer/director John Wells is intentional in presenting that viewpoint. However, Wells creates a world that offers neither hope nor gloom; the world is what it is. When times are good, everyone (it seems) wants the golden ring and when they are tough, carpentry looks very attractive (even though the film glosses over the skill required to be an in-demand carpenter). Perhaps we should find what we really love and do it rather than chase the (maybe not so much) almighty dollar. There might or might not be a lot of money on the table, but at the very least one could at least enjoy what they do and be grateful for the gifts that life has to offer. One only needs to take a step back from those conditioned pretenses we try to maintain and strive for something beyond the material.


  1. I quite liked The Company Men. It's a solid movie with a great cast and quite timely. I think the studio was trying to position this for award season and it got lost in the shuffle. Good review Pete!

  2. I think about a lot of the movies from the last two or three years that have touched on the economic crisis-- from Inside Job to Casino Jack to Up in the Air and even this-- and it always kind of saddens me how few they are. Few movies seem to want to take on the current economic realities, and most just use them as minor character details.

    Look at Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, which is all about how she's completely out of money and stuck in a terrible situation. And then she goes further and deeper into debt. And then the movie ends because that plotline was existing just to force several comic situations without need for resolution.

    If Company Men's only suggestion is to find pleasures in the simple things and manual labor, that's fairly disingenuous-- not everyone wants to redo old houses or mow lawns. Blue collar idealism won't do much for helping people out more than anything else, nor will any other 'let's just ignore what's bad and hope things get better' scenarios you see everyday.

  3. Is it just me or does this film try to go for more of an emotional punch to the gut than Margin Call and actually fail? At least that is my take based on what I've read around the blogosphere. The premise makes the movie sound like it wants to study what the emotional and psychological costs are to the people whom the economic downturn affected but so many people say the movie isn't that good while Margin Call is receiving tremendous praise.

  4. Castor, thank you for the kind words.

    If I recall correctly, the film was released for a week in December, 2010 to make a run at the Academy Awards, then went into wide release in January, 2011.


    I haven't seen Bridesmaids, but what you describe sounds a lot like the 'buy now, pay later' mentality that has permeated society. Society seems to thrive on a culture of debt, at least that's what the credit card companies want us to believe.

    I would also go so far as to say that we live in a disposable society; it costs far more to get you washing machine fixed than it is to buy brand new, even if yours is only a few years old. That kind of thinking expands into other facets of our lives where we are encouraged to buy the latest and greatest, even if we don't really need it. I can't help but wonder of this disposable, instantaneous world also affects our relationships; don't like the guy/gal you are with? Drop them and get a better model; it's the same with TV's, computers and iPhones.

    At the same time, I agree that not everyone wants to reno old houses and mow lawns; perhaps what the film is suggesting is balance rather than total devotion to work, the country club, the Porsche, and worrying about appearances. Affleck's character is in denial for most of the film and I feel he does not go through any real change. On the other side is Tommy Lee Jones, who had the right idea but lost his way and the events of the film help him find it again. Then there's Costner, who seems happy in what he does, with his family, and with his life; perhaps the film is not about white or blue collars at all, rather the search for happiness in one's life.


    I think both films are to be looked at independently. The Company Men examines those affected by the economic storm that hit, while Margin Call examines those who are about to unleash the storm. In addition, Margin Call unfolds over a 36 hour window; the clock is ticking and the tension builds as these people fret about what to do. They know what's going to happen to them and Wall Street, whereas The Company Men takes on a year long journey into the characters' lives and their struggles of uncertainty.

    Thank you all for the posts.


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