The great recession may be the talk of Main Street and Wall Street, but Hollywood has been strangely mute.
Sure, there’ve been a couple of features, such as “Up in the Air” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” but they centered more on the high-fliers who tell others to clean out their desks and be out by 5.
Enter writer/director John Wells, best known as a producer on such topic-heavy TV shows as “The West Wing,” “ER” and “Southland.” For his feature-film debut he has made “The Company Men,” an affecting, keenly observed tale of what happens to three executives who unexpectedly find themselves on the business end of the corporate cost-cutting ax.
But “The Company Men” is not just about the sudden slip in income; it’s also about male identity, middle-age angst and making the job the focus of one’s life.
Ben Affleck is Bobby Walker, a cocky, high-fiving, mid-level young sales exec at the fictional GTX corporation with a house in the ’burbs and a fast car in the driveway.
He’s the first to get the bad news, though he’s too ashamed to admit it to anyone, especially his blue-collar brother-in-law (Kevin Costner) who is always busting his chops about GTX shipping jobs overseas.
Bobby is confident he’ll land on his feet quickly, before anyone has had a chance to notice he has had a financial stumble. But as the days of enforced leisure and fruitless interviews drag into weeks, he finds himself teetering between denial and despair.
Also on the outs are Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who’s close to retirement but can’t afford to retire, and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), one of the big boys high up the corporate ladder whose position didn’t innoculate him from downsizing.
No doubt, these guys probably lost little sleep when those at the bottom of the GTX food chain were forced out. But it’s to Wells’ credit that he pushes beyond the stereotypes to make these characters real and sympathetic.
It also helps that Affleck (much more believable here as a distressed yuppie than as a working-class hood in “The Town”), Jones and especially Cooper invest these men with a well-grounded humanity.
By focusing on upper-class white men, “The Company Men” certainly doesn’t speak to everyone’s experiences in this troubled economy of the last three years. But it’s a start.