REVIEW: The Company Men Offers a Rare Portrait of the Working -- and the Nonworking -- World
Before Hollywood discovered it could reap huge profits by adapting comic books, mainstream movies used to attempt subjects that might have something to do with real grown-ups' lives. That impulse rarely surfaces these days, but it's the motor that drives The Company Men, John Wells' downsizing drama set in the Boston area circa 2008, just as the economy was beginning its long, slow-motion crash.
There are very few movies about the world of business (glamorous cautionary tales about the world of high finance, like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, don't count), but the reality is that most employed people have to reckon somehow with the machinery of the corporate world, even if that just means studiously working to stay out of its jaws. The Company Men isn't just about business. It's about something even more nebulous: the nature of work. And for all the ways in which its view of working -- and of not working -- has been moviefied, it's surprisingly down to earth and affecting. Last year's Up in the Air was slick and slippery -- much, in fact, like its sloganeering hero, played by George Clooney. The Company Men is infinitely more despairing and yet also, paradoxically, more hopeful. It suggests that work can actually mean something to people, beyond just giving them the means to afford a nice house or a fantastic car.
The harsh reality is that being able to make a decent living from really working -- as opposed to just pushing money from one place to another -- is practically a luxury not just in America but, increasingly, everywhere in the world. You won't get rich actually building or making things, or trying to run a company in a way that honors or respects its workers. The only way to make money in this climate is to squeeze people as hard as you can and then discard them. That's a view The Company Men both acknowledges as a reality and rails against.
Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a high-level sales guy at a large and ever-growing corporation who, in the early moments of The Company Men, is given his walking papers. The company he works for is called GTX -- those faceless initials could stand for anything. In fact, they stand for "Global Transportation Systems," which still means nothing. Eventually, we learn that GTX began as a small, Gloucester, Mass.-based shipbuilding company that had been built from the ground up by James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). The former has now crossed over to the dark side of the corporate world, spouting bromides like "We work for the stockholders now." Gene, James' second-in-command, has made plenty of dough off GTX himself -- the interior of his house looks like a mini-Tara. Still, the company's "restructuring" -- presided over by GTX's head of inhuman resources, Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) -- doesn't sit right with him, although he finds there's not much he can do stop this juggernaut.
Another hapless high-level exec caught in the corporate cogs is Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who's pushing 60 and who has been with the company for 30 years. These guys may have led a cushy existence compared with, say, the welders who actually build their ships. (That point is made outright by one of the characters.) But the movie doesn't try to apply a Marxist value system to the various levels of work-related suffering: Losing your job through no fault of your own sucks, period, whether you're at the top of the ladder or on the bottom rung.
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