Review: 'The Company Men'

(Two-and-a-half stars)

Recession-era America finally gets, in "The Company Men," a movie that squarely addresses recession-era America. But now that it's here, it's a bit hard to imagine who would want to see it.

Those folks hit hardest by the recession won't put their discretionary dollars to seeing John Wells' drama, and why should they? They're living their own catharsis. I suppose working-class folks may go to laugh and point at fallen executives (that's entertainment?). But I'm betting the most likely audience for this one will be people like Wells himself: comfortably wealthy individuals putting in liberal-guilt time and/or executives in need of assuagement that they're still good people in a dog-fire-dog economy.

OK, I'm being a bit cynical, but the TV-bred Wells ("ER") has written and directed "The Company Men" without ever coloring outside the lines: It's all a bit too neat and obvious and predictable.

Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a middle-tier employee fired by Boston-based ship-building corporation Global Transportation Systems. After 12 years, he's offered 12 weeks' full pay and benefits, and a desk in a job-search center (the corporate buzz-speak for this courtesy is "outplacement"). Profoundly disappointed top-floor exec Gene McClary (ever-sturdy Tommy Lee Jones) can't abide the tightening gyre of layoffs, but the company's CEO (Craig T. Nelson) resolutely holds up this defense: "We have a responsibility. We work for the shareholders now."

Wells makes it abundantly clear that Bobby is a guy desperately in need of some humility. Accustomed to his lifestyle, he refuses to give up his country-club membership or consider selling his house, and getting the Porsche detailed never seemed more like a defense mechanism. The bubble of Bobby's denial eventually bursts, as he processes the concern and hurt of his wife (Rosemary DeWitt) and teenage son Drew (Anthony O'Leary). Having first sneered at the offer, Bobby crawls back to his blue-collar brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) for construction work; it's one in a series of "indignities" that gets Bobby, once a "Master of the Universe" in training, back in touch with the human race.

The early movements of "The Company Men" generate some interest with the semi-absurdist space of the job center and the suspense of how far into trouble Gene's conscience will push him. (Some of that trouble involves Maria Bello's exec, who draws up the layoff lists; Gene's trysting with her behind the back of his socialite wife.)

Less suspenseful is the character arc of Gene's friend Phil (Chris Cooper), an account rep whose longterm loyalty to the company means he's an expensive -- and therefore eminently expendable -- employee. Another betrayed company man, he's unprepared for the cruelty of today's job market.

Wells structures his story to transparently didactic ends. After establishing Bobby as a horrible person, Wells allows him sunny redemption. Call it character shading, optimism or a cop-out, but neither Wells nor Affleck can make it ring true.

Similarly, the film's inspirational ending plays like wishful thinking. But at least it's in tune with the rising chorus of these dark financial days, singing of a sensible scale of back-to-basics business in homegrown production.

Rated R for language and brief nudity. 1 hour, 49 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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