Feeling a little too happy with the way life is going? Career seem secure and safe? Maybe this will be a good cautionary warning for you. If not, then it’ll just be really depressing. There are few films more topical than a workplace drama surrounding corporate layoffs. Is it enough to stand out come awards season?
The Company Men marks the big screen debut of John Wells, a man whose name should not be foreign to any TV viewer over the last decade. He’s the show-runner behind ER, The West Wing, Studio 60, and Southland. He’s responsible for some of the greatest moments in each, earning an impressive collection of Emmys in the process. Though he’s known for his work with Aaron Sorkin, Wells is an accomplished screenwriter in his own right, and served as the head of the WGA. This is first feature film directorial effort, and acts as a major landmark in an already impressive career.
The story is simple enough on the surface. Three men, all situated at different levels of a major corporation, find themselves out of work after the economic collapse. As the country approaches a 10% unemployment rate, it’s safe to assume that this isn’t a story that anyone will find unfamiliar. Corporations scramble to downsize in an effort to demonstrate profitability, and the employees pay the price.
As a college student, looking to enter the abysmal job market within the next few years, I find this film to be morbidly depressing. You take people who have worked hard their whole lives, managed to build a certain baseline existence for themselves and their loved ones, and you take from them their very livelihood. Ben Affleck knows no better how to be a carpenter than a nuclear physicist, yet the savings account is running out and there’s nary a paycheck in sight. In an effort to keep up appearances, he goes out to the golf course with his buddies, only to get thrown off of it when his membership fee comes up unpaid. He’s holding his world together with both hands and yet it still keeps slipping silently away. He sells his car, they sell the house, and his son even sells his Xbox in an effort to help the family. He’s young enough to be viable as an employment candidate should a position ever open up, but when all you have is hope, the world grows pretty dim around the edges.
Chris Cooper is the exact opposite. A man pushing 70, he’s got two daughters in college and an impressive mortgage. He made sure he was insulated, did all the ass kissing necessary to ensure his security and the security of his family. But what happens when the guy whose ass you’ve been kissing also gets the boot? He’s too old to start again, stays out at bars during the day so that the neighbors still only see him come home after 5pm, and knows that in order to keep up with the payments something has to give. His best friend, Tommy Lee Jones, is the fat cat at the top of the heap, the board member who swore to both of the other men that he’d keep their jobs viable no matter the cost. Except he and the CEO don’t see eye to eye on the whole downsizing idea, even though he’s one of the original founders of the company. As a threat to corporate leadership, he winds up getting a pink slip just like everybody else, and though he’s already set for life, that doesn’t stop him from considering just how badly wronged all those former employees are.
You won’t come out of this film with a cheery disposition. It won’t happen. If anything, you’ll find yourself forced to examine your own life, and the way you’ve chosen to live it. It’s all a stack of playing cards, and the higher you stack them the farther you’ll fall. Who do you rely on? What’s the next thing you can barely see coming over the horizon? If the end comes, what’s next? How far are you willing to go? The film asks a lot of questions, but has very few answers, and the resonating power of the work will entirely depend on you. That is both its strength, and its weakness, a fact I’m sure that The Weinstein Company is all too aware of. Should you get a screening near you, I’d recommend checking it out… just don’t expect too feel uplifted.
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