Company Men Review: When Ben Met Tommy Lee Met Chris Met Kevin

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The high-octane recession parable The Company Men entered the Sundance zeitgeist Friday night, screening again this morning to a monumentally stuffed, 1,270-person strong Eccles Theater. The question going in seemed to be, "Do we really need another Up in the Air right now?" The answer, of course, would be "No." But The Company Men isn't just another Up in the Air. It's better.

Forget for a moment the whole Oscar-race chatter orbiting George Clooney's dramedy; as portraits of post-employment malaise, bitterness, paranoia and humility go, writer-director John Wells seems to have a qualitatively better grasp on these themes than any narrative film I've yet seen. Beyond the on-the-nose hallmarks of a TV writer turned dramatic filmmaker (the film's dubious CEO actually says things like "Call up human resources, have 'em start making up a list for another round of downsizing"), Men transcends its occasional emo shortcuts with an uncompromising sense of accountability. It shadows laid-off hot shot Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) and his misplaced hubris. It spotlights the contradictions of philandering corporate moralist Gene McLary (Tommy Lee Jones). It haunts office lifer Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who is only as fulfilled as he is gainfully employed -- and even then, not much. It also halos Bobby's brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner), a building contractor who literally builds his purpose in life every day of the week, even when they don't pay him on Sundays.

Where any other number of filmmakers might have approached these characters through the overdone trope of overlapping narratives -- eventually tying them up in one big climactic, cathartic bundle -- Wells tosses them all in the same company and bounces their workplace woe off each other. Bobby is the first to excused from his duties at GTX, a shipbuilding empire with both glamorous new offices and gory new labor cuts on the horizon. Beside themselves, Gene and Phil stage a brief, unsuccessful fight for his reinstatement; their own disaffection and dread encroaches with every day Bobby seethes in his own futile search for a new gig. Most of them come with pay cuts, and the excellent Affleck -- who might not want to get so comfortable playing these kinds of smug, entitled assholes -- rides a tsunami of disappointment, denial and frustration with aplomb.

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Thankfully, Bobby's wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) is the family bookkeeper, and her early consideration of mortgage and car payments, country club dues, New England Patriots season-ticket costs and even dry cleaning expenses chips away at that denial. Wells gives DeWitt more than most actresses would get in such prestige-actor sausage parties; her awareness and support provide the unwavering conscience of the film. For his part, Jones's conscience stinks with guilt, both corporate (he flies on a private jet the day Bobby is fired) and personal (he's sleeping with the HR executive [Maria Bello] who's wielding GTX's axe). But it's not like he has forever to mull over his own culpability, because soon his own head is on the block along with that the disconsolate Phil.

The context for Wells's exploration is perhaps a little too cut-and-dry, rationalizing these layers of company men as individual phyla created by the recession. The reality is messier in Middle America, which Wells attempts to invite in with Costner's working-class Boston builder. It's facile, but it's not condescending -- at least not as condescending as Jason Reitman exploiting real layoff victims as a point of entry into Air bourgeois existential crisis. Wells actively refutes condescension, in fact, thrusting Bobby into the humble, necessary (and fulfilling) responsibility of taking Jack's offer of heavy lifting on the construction site. There's nothing profound here, it's simply what must be done after the self-pity winds down. Some, like Bobby and to a lesser degree Gene, will get it as the seasons roll on. Others, like Phil, with his abject disgrace of unemployment, won't get it at all.

Thematics aside, The Company Men rolls on the strength of Wells getting out of the way of good actors doing good-to-excellent work with a solid script. It frays at the end with that rush of catharsis and self-importance, but if anything, credit Wells with the optimism that too many filmmakers -- hell, too many Americans -- overlook in our nation's unfolding economic drama. If work must be life, then better that we should accept our duty to take charge of it as opposed to quivering below our desks or recoiling from the families who make most of who we are in the first place. The Company Men makes no excuses, and neither, it says, should we. Heed its warning.



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