"The Company Men" *** (out of ****)
In a strange twist of fate I saw "The Company Men" (2011) on the same day the U.S. Labor report for the month of June was released. According to the report only 18,000 jobs were created last month. The employment rate rose to 9.2% which equals more than 14 millions Americans who are out of work.
I mention all of this for a reason, believe it or not. This is what John Wells' "The Company Men" is about. The film deals which our current recession (though some would call it a depression) and our economic downturn. Millions of people are out of work as companies downsize. Meanwhile, CEOs are getting paid bonuses and the disparity between workers and their employers grows.
"The Company Men" centers on a shipbuilding company, GTX, run by James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson). The company's stocks are down, there is a threat of outsiders buying the company, taking control of the company which Salinger and his best friend, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) started from scratch. In order to deal with this problem Salinger and his board decide the best thing to do is downsize. More than 5,000 people are let go. Among that number is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper).
In a bizarre way "The Company Men" reminds me of "The Best Years Of Our Lives" (1946) the "Best Picture" Oscar winner, which dealt with post-WW2 America, and how soldiers reacted to returning home. In "The Company Men", just like "The Best Years" we follow three men; McClary, Walker and Woodward. Each man represents a different job-market reality. Walker is a young man, who put in 12 years at the company. He has an impressive resume and because of that he believes he will rapidedly find another job. The true nature of how bad the economy is hasn't hit him. He suspects it will only take a couple of days until he finds something else. Woodward represents an older generation. He is pushing 60 years old. He and his family are use to a certain way of life. This isn't the America he was taught about. There was a time you put in x amount of years with a company and you had job security. You saved some money on the side, had a nest egg, bought a home, put your kids through college. Woodward has done most of those things but isn't ready to retire. McClary is the company head with a conscience. He doesn't want to see these jobs go but, even with the company downsizing, he still makes money from his shares.
A lot of people compared "The Company Men" to the George Clooney vehicle "Up in the Air" (2009). There is however a big difference. "Up in the Air" was really a romantic/comedy/drama about a man who learns the value of his life. In that film we followed a man who fired people (this film has a character like that played by Maria Bello). In "The Company Men" who follow the people Clooney fired. This in some ways makes "The Company Men" a more relatable film. It might not be as good as "Up in the Air" but that is only because it isn't written as sharply and some of the performances didn't strike me the way they did in "Air".
Watching "The Company Men" though made me think about my own life. At the start of 2011 I was out of a job (unlike these characters and most of Americans, my situation was different, I quit my job. Yes, you read that right. In this economy I actually quit my job). For three months I was unemployed. Sure, I had some money saved up, but I wanted to work again. I needed to find something better than what I had. Luckily I did find something better, well, kind of. I don't have any benefits but I get a paycheck. "The Company Men" made me take a moment and pause. I'm blessed to have a job in this economy. I can pay my bills, put money in the bank and buy things I don't really need.
That is probably the strength of a film like "The Company Men". It isn't about the acting, though Cooper and Jones are good in their roles. The film is timely. We can see ourselves in these characters. We've been in this situation or you currently are. It feels realistic. The characters here face problems and make decisions which we have all had to make. Selling a home, selling a car, stop eating out, looking for a job which pays less than the one you just had. But hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to get by. As one character says in the film, "just be thankful you have a job."