*The Company Men (R)
Kimball's Peak Three
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!"
Apparently 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, can not 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.
For decades, Wells has held court as an executive producer in television, presiding over ER and The West Wing, among other standouts. Now he's finally traded up to the big screen, harnessing star power with Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones.
But 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, with the company suddenly out of his life, it doesn't bode well that the company has been his life. 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.
As Wells depicts his characters' crumbling complacency, we feel the contaminating radiation of economic implosion. Oh, the poor little rich boys! But the ensemble approach is self-diluting, too. Wells is better at gradual portraiture than dramaturgy; because this is film and not TV, it reads as a gathering of good performances in search of a greater meaning.
One virtue of the season-long episodic structure is the freedom of casually checking in on multiple characters, and feeling our lives moving along as theirs do, without the urgency to wrap things up in a couple hours. Great films make those captive hours feel like whole lifetimes, 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 bootstrap tug and get back to work. Where's the coruscating rage of Mametism when we need it?
Still, and not least because Roger Deakins' cinematography supplies just the right kind of polished gloom, the 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.