E.R.” creator John Wells writes and directs the drama “The Company Men”. The film arrived in San Francisco today at the Loews Metreon 16. Mr. Wells’ film is not so much a party pooper as it is a harsh reality you fled to a theater to escape from. The Weinstein Company pulled this movie from its December release slot, likely knowing of its anticipated effect.
Meet Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), Bobby (Ben Affleck), Phil (Chris Cooper) and Danny (Eamonn Walker). They work at a company run by James (Craig T. Nelson). One by one they fall like dominoes in an Agatha Christie mystery. And then there are none. Some of the men are shunted unceremoniously from a position they’ve held longer than the person firing them from it has been alive.
Each of the jettisoned parties tries to climb out of a hole. Relationships change. Two have been best friends. Bobby’s wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) stays home with their son and daughter. The pressure is on. Mortgage payments have to be made.
Mr. Wells’ feature film debut is not a poor one. The film accurately captures the despair and devastation of sudden job loss. Identity, relevance and self-esteem are questioned. Manhood, womanhood and family are tested. You identify strongly with these fired workers’ plights. The tenuous financial stability. That sudden nothingness. All of us have been there. It feels like you have been to hell. You are stuck there until your circumstances change.
For all its grimness, the fault of “The Company Men” lies in a message implying that losing your job isn’t necessarily the worst thing, but rather one of the more opportunistic events that can happen to you. (Well, it tests character.) You have an opportunity to get another job. The film isn’t literally saying there’s a long-term upside to losing your job (although sometimes there is), but that’s the overall impression I was left with.
Mr. Wells’ film has its clichés. One character chews out a job interviewer in take-this-interview-and-shove-it style. “The Company Men” affords this as a way for the audience to vent vicariously at the onscreen powers-that-be to generate release-valve comedy. Alas, this particular instance of snarky isn’t funny, just sad.
The performances from Mr. Jones and Mr. Cooper are well-rendered. Like Mr. Jones, Mr. Cooper’s ability to portray wrenching expressions and emotional heartache remain exceptional. When you watch him you can’t help but think of his work in “American Beauty” and the depth of much of his other work. Mr. Cooper’s Phil is a lifer. Phil’s cynicism is the kind many of us harbor in difficult situations like these. As stifling as cynicism is, you can’t blame Phil for his sentiments. We understand him.
But I didn’t understand this movie. It distracted me from itself. I wondered why I was repeatedly being treated to discreet but telling shots of Ms. DeWitt’s Maggie in super-tight jeans, specifically shots of her rear-end in the frame. Why? I’m unsure whether Mr. Wells did this deliberately. As much as women in decent films are smart, beautiful and pleasing to the eye, when they’re in otherwise non-sexual-themed films solely for anatomy placement it’s difficult to take that film seriously. As despairing and real as “The Company Men” is, its authenticities are strictly limited to its job loss and backstabbing scenarios. I wasn’t turned off by those scenarios or how they were represented, but I was by the gratuitous aspect of most everything else.
Mr. Wells seems to overdramatize character sacrifices to make points about the aches they are feeling. Sometimes those points feel forced. Other times, some actors (specifically Mr. Affleck) don’t bore deep enough to sell their situations. In this film the normally-adept Mr. Affleck seemed to be going through the motions.
There’s something less sympathetic these days about seeing upper-class people on the down-and-outs. Big mansions. Granted, I felt the pains and saluted Gene’s hard-boiled earnestness. But I want “Ironweed”! I want no-hopers being portrayed. The working class stiff. I want those impoverished characters from “The Full Monty”! Most Americans who will see the film won’t be in the income-earning bracket these poor souls are in. Perhaps that shouldn’t matter. Maybe it should.
Newsflash: “The Company Men” isn’t “Full Monty” entertainment, but it doesn’t do as much with its potential as it should. As a result, it often feels as insignificant as its ending does hokey, even if the movie’s events merit it.
Another of the film’s problems are its anachronisms. At one point you hear a voice from a television in one character’s home saying something to the effect of, “today President George W. Bush is considering implementing another stimulus recovery package.” This was actually announced in October 2008. Prior to this, near the film’s start Gene is asked about the projections for “fiscal year 2011”. The film is set in 2010, and there are timeshifts bouncing it from pillar to post, like Doctor Who’s time-travelling tardis. Or the Delorean in “Back To The Future”. Or that “Hot Tub Time Machine”.
Kevin Costner is enjoyable as Maggie’s brother Jack. His brusqueness and wry humor is refreshing amidst a dour atmosphere. Jack’s a construction company owner, and he believes the grass is greener on the other side. When I saw Jack I thought of Sidney Poitier’s Homer character in “Lilies Of The Field”: “I build a chapel. You build a chapel. We build a chapel.”
Misery may love company, but unemployment breeds misery. “The Company Men” tries but fails to make significant inroads for nearly two hours — longer than it should run. Some of its events are memorable, but the film itself isn’t.
With: Maria Bello, Patricia Kalember, Suzanne Rico, Nancy Villone, Kathy Harum, Celeste Oliva, Sasha Spielberg.
“The Company Men” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language and brief nudity. The film’s running time for one hour and 49 minutes.
–At the Loews Metreon 16 in San Francisco
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