The film begins with Bobby (Ben Affleck) losing his job at the blue collar company GTX due to a corporate merger—the lone negative in a life so far filled with lovely clichés. From there things get comfortably predictable because John Wells’ directorial debut forgets it’s a feature film and, well, not a sitcom. Wells, a veteran writer for several popular TV shows (ER, The West Wing), simply isn’t able to translate the reality of the harsh corporate downsizing that’s swept across America and the world the last few years. What’s worse, he wrote the screenplay that has inexplicable cuts and gaps in it, none flattering or realistic.
For even if one were to look past the abrupt dismissal and the fact that Bobby gets only twelve weeks pay as a severance package for twelve years of employment, it is hard to fathom the lack of serious tension this blow impacts on his wife Maggie (the lovely but totally miscast Rosemarie DeWitt). She immediately goes into the type of cost-saving mode that makes one wonder why she wasn’t so wary of Bobby’s pernicious spending in the first place. Twelve years is a long time to feel insecure and hedging a bet on whether one’s boss will retain your services or not.
The storyline featuring another GTX employee Phil (Chris Cooper) is least developed despite being the most realistic character in the film. Cooper brings his usual crotchety genius to the role even though the ham-fisted screenplay dooms him to an inevitable outcome before real brutality can be brought up. His artfulness within the company has never been secure and Cooper plays him with a fidgety frame that works despite never explaining itself.
This is the biggest problem with The Company Men: its focus on a positive outcome overshadowing the dire ugliness of everything in between. Losing one’s job is an unhinging experience but only through Phil is that seen, whether it’s his wife insistence that he carries on a routine so the neighbors won’t suspect or the one spectacular scene when the female job placement officer tells him that his resume is too ‘old’. The look of indignation he gives her after she tells him to leave off his war experience is priceless as is his stuffed-shirt persona amid the sea of younger applicants, all busily on their Blackberry devices.
Bobby faces no such turmoil apparently; instead he plays golf and accepts his brother-in-law’s offer to work at his carpentry company. At most he loses his mansion but there are no ugly spats at home and he looks well-fed. This is a mere inconvenience for him---a cut-back on a car or dry-cleaning. Instead of severe reality being an issue it’s his pride at stake instead.
Then there is Gene (Tommy Lee Jones) who doesn’t need to worry about pride as his stock in GTX allows him to pretty much do what he’s always done. It is his duplicity though that lingers most as well as his inability to act. Or his reluctance to really call out GTX boss Craig (Craig T. Nelson) for what he truly his because he was a benefactor before the massive job cuts. What moves him to lash out is uncertain but maybe it’s the guilt of not being able to identify anymore with the ‘average Joe’. He was, after all, a senior manager and financially established. He is hypocritical too: staring down his wife’s inquiry about a company jet for personal travel but rarely feeling guilty for cheating on her with the company’s senior lawyer Sally (Maria Bello).
For all the focus on Bobby’s redemptive drive to become ‘the man’ again though, The Company Men is in fact Gene’s moment to reinvent himself into what he’s always seen in the mirror… which is, ironically, also ‘the man’. It’s the same phrase but the huge difference in the complexity of the term to both men is something Wells’ film, in its overpowering limitation, never seriously tackles. Nor is the film able to manifest the ties that bind corporate men together but seeks to instead paint a generic canvass as to what unhinges them. It is, of course, the slavish love for money and power but in the film it’s merely perfunctory, like an affair or Sunday afternoon golf.
Which is a shame because the minute Bobby sits down to head Gene’s new company he rallies the troops with the type of speech that is geared for one thing only: making money quickly. Greed is good but more importantly it is back as a glint in his eye. Back home his wife no doubt realizes what he won’t readily admit to but what we’ve been waiting for: the moment Bobby trades in one financial monster for another en route to becoming one himself.