Two years into the global financial crisis, it’s time we started thinking about the other guys. The well-off, comfortably oblivious guys, men who might not have been directly responsible for the ruinous market bubble but who certainly enjoyed a long run of benefiting from it before their jobs and lives began to crumble beneath them. The Company Men (The Weinstein Co.), the feature film debut of ER creator John Wells, is a thoughtful, tasteful, and timely tribute to a few such men. If only the results weren’t so respectably dull.
The Company Men establishes its three main storylines with impressive swiftness: Minutes into the movie’s opening sequence, we know all we need to about Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper). All three men work for a company called GTX, a Boston shipbuilding concern that’s rapidly morphing into a huge transportation conglomerate, a place that, rather than manufacturing a product, churns out profit for its shareholders. Recession-induced downsizing has already cost Bobby his job, and the two older men’s positions are in imminent jeopardy. Gene stands a chance of hanging on to his spot as vice president of the company—after all, he’s having an extramarital affair with the H.R. executive in charge of downsizing (Maria Bello). But Phil, an old-school company man used to steak-and-martini work lunches, completely loses his bearings when he’s thrown into the world of résumé-jiggering and corporate self-help seminars.
Bobby’s stay-at-home wife, the pragmatic Maggie (a dryly funny Rosemarie DeWitt), has trouble impressing on him the repercussions of what’s happened: Not only will he have to give up golfing and buying expensive gadgets for the kids; they may have to sell their nice suburban house. Bobby chafes at every indignity of unemployment—most of all the affirmations he’s encouraged to repeat at those self-help seminars—but he’s finally forced to swallow his pride and ask his working-class brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) for a job putting up drywall with Jack’s contracting business.
Here’s the place where I guess I’m supposed to poke fun at Kevin Costner—but damned if (along with DeWitt) he isn’t one of the best things in the movie, even if his Boston accent sounds a bit raw. Yes, the character of the salt-of-the-earth working man is a sentimentalized type, but Costner doesn’t play it for nobility; his Jack Dolan is a fundamentally decent fellow but no saint. Jack regards his successful and occasionally condescending brother-in-law with wry irony. When Bobby, after some initial resistance, begins to extol the spiritual satisfactions of manual labor, Jack gently reminds him that his carpentry skills aren’t all that.
Maybe the reason this solidly acted, handsome-looking movie never takes flight is because of the casting of Ben Affleck as the central character. Affleck is the Dockers of actors: serviceable, preppy, bland. He seems to occupy a separate acting planet from Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper, men whose deep-set eyes and worn faces suggest a lifetime of back story before they even say a word. But though Jones and Cooper are, as always, satisfying to watch, the older executives at GTX never really come alive either. Their character arcs are too stiffly scripted; especially in the case of the Cooper character, we foresee every story beat one scene before it comes.
The Company Men has a dramatically muffled quality that’s probably intentional. Successful white American men have never been a group renowned for their emotional openness. Indeed, much of the movie’s action revolves around these men’s entrenched resistance to personal or professional change. Not once but twice, Tommy Lee Jones’ V.P. takes another character on a nostalgic walk through the abandoned shipyard, remembering how, “We used to build something here.” It’s a sentiment that anyone who’s lived through the boom-and-bust cycle of the last few decades has at one time or another felt in their bones. But the venerated American export that The Company Men most recalls isn’t seagoing vessels—it’s hourlong dramatic television shows.