In a sense, the movie “The Company Men” starring Ben Affleck as Bobby, Tommy Lee Jones as Gene, and Chris Cooper as Phil is a throwback to the Great Depression as well as a reflection on today’s recession and downturn in the economy.
It seems the man of the family still feels his whole identity is wrapped up in his job and ability to provide. If he gets laid off, everything he’s worked for will go down the drain and, in one case at least, if his position is deemed redundant and he’s of a certain age, there’ll be nothing left to live for. In another throwback to the 1930s, Jack (Kevin Costner), Bobby’s brother-in-law, works with his hands and runs a small construction business and Gene (a laid-off top executive) talks about the days when his men worked hard at the Boston shipyard and had a sense of pride in what they were making — they could see the finished product and it made them feel manly.
In this case, instead of the stock market crash, it’s the fall in value of the stock in the shipbuilding company (GTX) that’s caused the CEO to cut failing divisions, give in to a merger and fire corporate executives and those working under them.
There are, of course, great differences between the days of yore and today. Thirty-something Bobby Walker is paying a mortgage on a suburban McMansion, owns a Porsche that he tools around with and has a membership in a prestigious golf club, all to keep up appearances as he does something or other handling retail sales.
Suddenly stripping him of all these externals, including the illusion of continuing upward mobility causes a devastating reality check. His spunky wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) informs him of their debts, the prospect of eventually having to move the family (he, his wife and two kids) into his parent’s home which leads to, of all things, working as a laborer for his brother-in-law Jack.
This, in turn, exposes the fact that Bobby has none of those old-fashioned skills of working with his hands. Phil, on the other hand, did work with his hands and climbed all the way up to an executive office and now, pushing sixty, finds he has little or no prospects which will enable him to compete with younger men while his wife (whom we barely see) tells him not to come home before six (again the burden of always having to keep up appearances).
Gene, the top executive, is another matter, juggling an affair with another executive in charge of hiring and firing while estranged from his socialite wife who goes flitting off here and there. All this while lost with nothing to do, visiting the empty dockyard where the business began, nostalgic and bitter about those same lost values of the good ole days.
For some reason, there is no middle ground here. Bobby, Gene and Phil live in an upscale environment at the outset; Bobby’s parent’s live in a low-income tract home and the house Jack is working on is an old tumbledown wreck in a poor neighborhood that has to be completely reconstructed.
What to make of all this?
The only really interesting or compelling part to this story, a first-feature written and directed by John Wells, is the premise itself: what happens to company men, executives, and CEOs, when they are let go because of cuts in jobs due to our current recession? This is a very current issue, one that we in the general audience can really care about. But, and here’s the difference: these are very wealthy men, high up in the company ladder, so when they fall, values really come into question. Fortunately, Mr. Wells addresses this question head on. What does or did it mean to have a McMansion? What’s the big difference between driving a mindlessly expensive foreign car, or a good, dependable truck that you use for your work in construction, as Ben Affleck as Bobby has to learn to do, and take the whole family out for a ride in the country together?
Mr. Affleck is given the chance to see his character through from beginning to end, which gives us the chance to really see how Bobby’s values do change. He finally has to go to work for his brother-in-law, Jack, and train to learn the art and craft of carpentry work involved in reconstructing an old house. Bobby is not up to the job, but when he is given the opportunity to return to head of the sales department for his old partner, Gene, he says he wishes he could learn more about carpentry and stay with his new great family of down-to-earth construction workers. He is sick and tired of the tension, always trying to keep one step ahead of the younger MBA graduates from Harvard. This is quite a journey for Bobby and for us to go with him.
As stated earlier, it’s a shame that Mr. Wells could not give the same attention to the other main male characters in the film. Mr. Jones and Mr. Cooper are both fine actors and would have been up to the job, but as it is, they are left by the wayside along with their wives and other family members. But the fact that the basic question of values was being asked by this movie in the first place, gives it a strength and a reason to see it.
There is a telling moment when Bobby’s wife says, “You haven’t lost everything. You’ve still got me. And you’ve still got our kids.”
However, the viewer should be prepared for a glaring weakness as well in the screenwriting which causes a letdown in our viewing experience as we wish the holes in the other stories were fleshed out too.