"The Company Men" — ★★ — Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner, Maria Bello; R (language, brief nudity); in general release
Perhaps the time is right for a glib, predictable and comforting sermon about life after a layoff. "The Company Men" will connect with anyone for whom "the new reality" of today's economy hits close to home. But anyone looking for insights deeper than the business world cliches in writer-director John Wells' film may find this a sermon easily tuned out.
It's about men, mostly, who are not the villains of the global financial meltdown, but not the most sympathetic victims of it either. They are the well-off guys who have thrived in a corporate culture that gave them trophy homes, trophy Porsches and trophy wives.
And then the bottom falls out. Ben Affleck stars as Bobby, a VP of sales of GTX, a transportation conglomerate where "We need to get the stock price up" leads to mass layoffs. Bobby is the first to get the meeting with the HR hitwoman (Maria Bello), the first to collect a severance package and the first to waste his days at the outplacement firm his company hired to help him find a new job.
Chris Cooper is Phil, a much older man much higher in the pecking order who started as a welder in the company's now-idle shipyard, working his way into a heaping mortgage and the chance to send his kids to an Ivy League school.
And Tommy Lee Jones is the division head, rich but principled enough to be appalled at the layoffs and the firing of old friends and not willing to lie about the company's prospects, even if his boss (Craig T. Nelson) doesn't like it.
Wells' film takes Bobby through the stages of death and dying that losing a longtime job can seem like. Bobby keeps up appearances, is sure "It'll just be a few days" before he finds work and maintains the country club dues, Porsche payments and his own sense of superiority as he is beaten down by the job hunt. If you've ever hunted for a job, you'll recognize the bitter disappointment of a near miss and the promises that aren't promises at all, if not the anger that Bobby's sense of entitlement gives him.
The wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) is the practical one, going back to her nursing job, putting the house on the market, hunkering down.
The HR hitwoman is having an affair with the boss, and the other wives are parodies of such characters — the spendthrift, the self-medicating alcoholic. Wells is far more at home with Bobby's contemptuous, blue-collar contractor brother-in-law, the guy (Kevin Costner, good) Bobby's too good to go to work for. Or so he thinks.
This isn't "Up in the Air," and we're not dealing with this awful event on a metaphysical level. But there's truth in between the cliches. Cooper's guy who worked his way up the ladder suffers the most indignities and is the best written character, a man ordered to delete everything from his Vietnam War service to his many years in each job from his resume by a callous career counselor who holds out little hope for a 60-something man, out of work.
"You know the worst part? The world didn't end ... My life ended. Nobody noticed."
The only edge to the movie is in the scathing take on the CEO, made a life-size villain by Nelson. He's a man who earns 700 times as much as his average worker, figures he's somehow worth that and will throw as many bodies overboard from his shipping company as it takes to save his private jet, his island in the Bahamas and the swank new corporate headquarters he insists they keep, rather than employees.
Cliche or not, any working person in America will recognize him.
"The Company Men" is rated R for language and brief nudity; running time: 100 minutes