REVIEW: The Company Men Offers a Rare Portrait of the Working -- and the Nonworking -- World

Movieline Score: 9

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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  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    Cautionary note: people who like the idea of being persevering, generally ensure they end up living in an environment that shortchanges them. You take the current lot of American humanity, in their hunt for adultness / penance in self-sacrifice, small hopes, and hardship, and provide them magically with instead their every dream come true, they would hate you to the point of wanting to kill you for giving them way beyond what they're prepared to accept -- for adorning them after they've finally near-sheared the most compromising parts of themselves off. So instead, a future of a first long bleakness; then some bits of New Deal solace amidst the shared suffering, the untended to, valid complaints of indifferent, resistant, ongoing corporate culture; until some massive sacrificial war permits a later generation to the moving-beyond actually involved in growing up. ("You can never outdistance your ancestors" -- I look forward to all the "growth" that'll follow that thought / inclination.) The challenge now is to make sure we don't too-fast race into the depression mind-set -- getting "there" before it too much settles in, would suggest it might just be following our lead.

  • Tamar says:

    Your fancy prose misses the point entirely. Most Americans are simply struggling with being poorer than they'd like to be, and it has nothing to with a "hunt for adultness / penance in self-sacrifice, small hopes, and hardship." And please, no one would kill you for making their dreams come true because they're some sort of scarred animal in a cage. Remember: it's the economy, stupid.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    I hear your point, but to me, people get the economy they actually want. If they truly feel they deserve (have earned), if they truly want, happiness, you get the like of the 30 years of on and on growth that was 1950 to 1980. Nothing could put a stop to it; not corporations, late capitalism -- run-amock, widespread greed -- terrestrial limits, Celestial scorn, ancestors-all-in-disapproval -- nothing. However, if what they want is to be "Americans simply struggling with being poorer than they'd like to be," to be some (idiotic) generation that renewed all the "ennobling," "necessary" sacrifices their grandparents were stupefied (and stupided) by, who could believe themselves truly desiring of better, ONLY given there being little chance any such would befall them, then nothing could stop it either. If aliens landed on the earth right now and forced endless bunches of riches into everyone's pockets, we're very near the point where we spoiled Americans would monk and monastery ourselves before the abundance. If they took that away, and forced us forever into 5-star accommodations, then we'd deem virtual reality the "truer" one, and absolutely refuse to forego the Xbox so we could reify (yes, maybe even the likes of snobbish "I don't own a TV" critics) the likes of "Fallout 3," until the even-more-appropriate "Penance 2morrow" could be made. If they took that away, then we'd slowly go insane, depriving, UGLIFYING ourselves near to the point of hacking off our own limbs -- even if that 5-star, top-of-the-line refrigerator couldn't be managed to be appropriately-tumbled to provide some unlikely-but-maybe-still-possibly? excuse
    ... unless of course they yet somehow proved killable, then, yes, we would kill them, for feeding us abundance when what we want is hardening through suffering, for drawing out our deepest, and truly regrettable, wishes, and forcing us to catch some sight of them. The zombified of the 1930s weren't perseverers; they were (in greater truth) grotesque willers of their own penance-born deterioration. Some (the interesting) mocked their own back then -- that is until everyone was about ennobling. Let's start with that, and see where it gets us -- I don't want a rehash of the 1930s/40s, even if it did end up serving out "adult" dishes of grace and wit, in film, in art, that apparently no critic seems to see the main drawback to (that it was always born out of and remained true to an ethos of compensation, not really enrichment).

  • SunnydaZe says:

    Most of us have the hard choice between time or money. With money you have comfort which you can't enjoy because you are at work all the time... With time you have no comfort because the fuse has been lit and the bomb will go off at any minute, but you do get odd moments of true freedom before the sh*t hits the fan.
    God did not decide this is the way things should be. Jesus doesn't want you to pay rent nor does Mohammad respect you for all of your hard work. This system was created by humanity and humanity VOLUNTEERS to work with-in.
    The bottom has dropped out leaving people who work at Wal-mart paying money to eat at Red Lobster so the people who work at Red Lobster can afford to shop at Wal-mart.
    The only real change will occur when enough people say, "I'm mad as Hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Thru out history this is known as REVOLUTION. And sometimes, this point of action succeeds in evoking positive change. Many times it just cuts off the head of one beast and replaces it with another more or less terrible entity.
    But when things have gone as far as they can go, and things have gotten as bad as they can get> Is it worth the risk?
    Gandhi once said, "10,0000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians, if those Indians refuse to cooperate."
    This has become us and our corporate masters.
    Question is> What are you going to do?

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    I disagree. When people are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore! they do the likes of chopping off leaders' heads -- along with those of anyone even remotely connected to them, until numbers pile up beyond number, and even your best friend begins to seem suspicious. Only AFTER bodies of both sides lie everywhere, now so much seeming more born of the same purpose than foes of opposite stripe, only AFTER people have begun to forget the point of it all, but still gauge that surely some awful blood price has more than fully been repaid, does society move ahead -- rock and roll, flower power, and even soldier mockery. Revolutionaries mostly want to sacrifice themselves, along with you too, more than probably. Never readily trust them, or their grievances -- they'd be shortchanged if their foes ever agreed to an agreeable compromise, and / or offered fair redress: almost always, that's not what they want. (There are exceptions ... I'd trust Krugman, for instance.) Society doesn't so much grow when people are prepared to fight hard for their fair lot; it actually mostly grows when people feel permitted to partake in and enjoy the ample lot that looks like it might be opening up for them -- even if it really doesn't end up requiring much of a fight. Their enemies could in fact step aside; amplitude, really just theirs for the ready-taking; and yet they'd manage even being somewhat truly pleased it proved all so all-so-easily-guilt-arousingly easy -- they're in mind to relax, and enjoy themselves some while, not to fight to salvage what is at least necessary for human dignity, from bastards who couldn't care less how much they've suffered, only that they yet try and shave, shower every now and then, serve, but otherwise be done with.

  • SunnydaZe says:

    Revolution can be small actions as well as big. The first step is acknowledging that so much of what we work for and agree on is 90% completely unnecessary for our own human well-being... (Black Friday, anyone?)
    Plus, a system where you can be laid off on a moment's notice and then subsequently evicted with-in the next month is broken and actively wants you fail.