Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Company Men (2011)

As the latest film to take on this modern financial crisis and its societal impact, The Company Men makes for an excellent companion piece to 2009’s Up In the Air. A careful and diligent character piece, John Wells’ film approaches the massive layoffs and power shifts (in Boston, circa 2008) from the view of the once successful, now unemployed – confident men with handsome features and distinguished ideals forced to reevaluate everything they thought life was meant to be. It is a movie of crisis, and more specifically, a movie of wealth in crisis. And as such it may seem not entirely appealing – who wants to watch the haves complaining about having not? Still, the movie manages to create sympathy from our empathy, concentrating not on the materials but the people who purchase them, the people who are, more or less, just like “us”.

It starts with the script, which takes a nuanced, almost poetic approach to authenticity. It would be easy to mock these characters, their struggles, or their sense of entitlement. But Wells’ script keeps them grounded, flawed but understandable, and ultimately accessible. Affleck’s Bobby can be a jerk, but he’s also a family man, a man who’s worked hard to follow a path that others recommended. Tommy Lee Jones plays a man who’s loyalty and honesty earned him a fortune, but not fulfillment. Chris Cooper’s Phil is a blue collar guy who worked his way to white, just to see all that hard work add up to diddly when he was finally too old to do anything about it.

A first time writer/director, Wells is a career actor with strong performance instincts. He brings out the best in Affleck, who over the last few years has gravitated from the publicly mocked pretty boy to Hollywood’s upper realm of comeback kids. So in many ways his personal journey echoes that of the character, and gives us that something extra to latch onto.

Cooper and Tommy Lee, meanwhile, are trustable stalwarts, men audiences like to watch and are eager to buy into. Wells plays off of that as well, drawing earnest performances from occasionally limited characters.

The women are not forgotten, but at times seem haphazardly developed (this being his rookie outing, we can forgive Wells his occasional wandering narratives and continuity errors). Dig Maria Bello as the HR woman tasked with ruining lives, or Rosemarie DeWitt as the mother, wife and bookkeeper struggling to keep it all together. These are complicated roles, with apposite performances.

These characters are familiar – they are “types”. They offer qualities and experiences valued not just by the audience, but by a country rich in narrative heritage, in stories of working hard to succeed, and to be rewarded. The idea of working hard and coming away with nothing – or worse, losing everything – is an intimidating one to many, but paralyzing to the psyche of a nation founded on such ideals.

At least that’s what The Company Men is banking on. This story is an affluent one for certain, with enough “regular working folks” mixed in to keep things in perspective (i.e Kevin Costner surprisingly solid performance as the tough-love carpenter). Wells film proposes that in a depression, people of all races and classes are boiled down to simply… people – we all suffer, know what it is to suffer, and know what it is to hope. That’s the mantra, and it’s an easy one to buy stock in.

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