Sundance Film Fest 2010: The Company Men Review

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

The first narrative feature of the powerhouse television producer John Wells (“ER,” “Southland”), “The Company Men” is an absorbing and often painfully observant work about the interlocking fortunes of three corporate executives whose mounting unease and loss of identity is exacerbated by the profound economic downturn.

The natural tendency is to view the new work in the vein of Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” but the more fitting and exacting comparison is Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Tokyo Sonata,” in the often expert way it anatomizes the profound sense of frustration, disappointment and failure of the professional class.

Wells’ script has some faults and imperfections, but his eye for casting, performance and nuance is very and purposefully demonstrated. Structurally, Wells’ script very much shows off his television background, in the way the sharply upholstered script shuttles a series of dovetailing storylines. The revelation is how skilled and capable Wells shows himself telling the story visually, drawing on recurring visual motifs and rhyming editing patterns to deepen the emotional content.

The movie’s center is a holy trinity, three men of different ages, background, class and educational profile, linked by their connection to a global shipping concern based in Boston. Wells opens the work with a montage that links the houses of the three men, sharply illuminating their accoutrements of money, status and social ambition.

At the beginning Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) epitomizes corporate privilege and social ease, ruling court among a golfing foursome at his beautifully appointed private country club. He’s a confident, comfortable sales executive at GDX, a transportation conglomerate. His world quickly unravels when a series of strategic maneuvers and economic reversals occasions a corporate consolidation that renders him a “redundancy”; he is part of a wave of unceremoniously dismissed employees.

Phil Woodlawn (Chris Cooper) is spared in the round of cuts, but he remains on edge. In the first of several striking visual pieces, Wells photographs from Phil’s point of view, looking out his office, as he studies the colleagues who silently walk across the company parking lot, carrying their personal belongings in a box. Phil embodies a different social and class strain, the self-made career striver who is suddenly quite vulnerable because of his age and lack of social comfort.

The third part of the equation is Gene McLary (Tommy Lee Jones), the company’s second in command and the most iconoclastic of the three protagonists. He’s a corporate free spirit and risk taker who counsels for the long view and against rash decisions.

Wells’ script pirouettes around the three interlocking stories, of Bobby trying to cope with his cashiered career prospects and the escalating tension of finding a new job balanced against Phil’s desperation of holding his own job and Gene’s disillusionment with the personal and professional direction of his life.  Against this backdrop Wells interpolates other stories, showing in quick, telling moments the personal and social dynamics of having your job, livelihood and lifestyle brutally interrupted.

The emotional centerpiece of the work is Bobby’s complex, messy and sometimes volatile interaction with his wife (the superb Rosemarie DeWitt) and the compromise he’s forced to make, seeking help and distinctly different type of work with his disapproving brother-in-law (Kevin Costner). Like Teruyuki Kagawa’s solitary protagonist in Kurosawa’s “Tokyo Sonata,” Bobby is blindsided by his diminished status, loss of dignity and sense of failure. “I’m a 37-year-old loser who can’t support his family,” he cries in anguish.

Wells has a great eye for talent, for actors, and how to work with them. His visual sense and personal expression is quite impressive. He’s aided greatly by the exceptional work of Roger Deakins, the Coen Brothers’ great cinematographer who brings both a gravity and sureness to the imagery. Wells is particularly good at his use of silhouette, in a series of exchanges, Don with the company president and founder as they survey their sleek new corporate offices, or Bobby framed by the window, looking out, solemnly, helplessly, at the blinding white snow that falls.

His script is not always lucid or just. There’s a strain of misogyny in the conception of the human resources executive (Maria Bello) and Gene’s consumer obsessed wife. A storyline involving Gene’s affair with Bello’s character seems poached from “Network,” and sometimes feel unnecessarily woven into the wider story. Jones does his typically exceptional work, funny, brilliant, smart, but the character’s utopian belief system seems at odds with a brilliant career corporate executive.

“The Company Men” is not perfect, but it’s alive to feeling and gets at mood, frustration, despair and anger that make it very a work of its time that is uneasy, sharp and unfortunately all too realistic.