When caught on camera, the act of firing somebody can be portrayed many different ways. It can be deep and introspective, especially if we’re watching George Clooney do it in an Oscar-nominated film. It can be mildly amusing, particularly when we’re watching Donald Trump say it to celebrities. But what we rarely see on the big screen are the people who’ve been fired. Where do they go the next day? What do they do? How do they cope? Those are the questions that “The Company Men” tries to answer, following victims of the recent financial crisis as they attempt to move on with their lives.

The Company Men

At the State
The Weinstein Company

Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck, “The Town”) was a middle-aged, upper-middle-class account manager at conglomerate GTX. He was living the American dream: big house, nice family and a Porsche in the driveway. And then one day, after years of service, he’s suddenly dismissed as a redundancy and forced out of his office. He’s quickly joined by Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper, “Syriana”) an older, upper-level executive who’s struggling to put two kids through college.

The cutbacks are part of a strategic initiative from the head of GTX, James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson, “The Devil’s Advocate”) to keep his company out of bankruptcy and avoid a hostile takeover. When his partner, Gene McLary (Tommy Lee Jones, “No Country for Old Men”) protests these moves as Pyrrhic, he soon finds himself on the scrap heap as well.

For Walker and Woodward, life descends from corner offices to cubicles at the outplacement service center. This is where the film hits its stride, presenting a sharp, bitingly realistic commentary on the social impact of unemployment. Walker, for example, is quickly humbled by his situation — after constant rejection, he successively reduces his standards for a new job until we finally see him pounding drywall for his brother-in-law’s construction firm. This is all contrasted against Salinger’s plans for a luxurious new headquarters building with an entire floor reserved for five executives. It’s enough to make viewers quiver with rage.

The film, which was well received at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, was sadly hampered by a badly timed theatrical release in the wake of “Up in the Air” and a studio more invested in obvious, uplifting Oscar bait like “The King’s Speech.” That’s sad, because in many ways, “Company Men” is far more compelling than the snoozer that was “The King’s Speech” and far more relevant than “Up in the Air.” Instead of Clooney’s quirky obsessions with travel and solitude, “Company Men” explores a pain more familiar — Affleck’s quiet desperation and Cooper’s unbridled fury are genuine American reactions to a faltering economy that’s forced thousands into the breadlines. It’s a shame that the film is only now reaching Michigan — in a state where manufacturing jobs have fled and unemployment stands at 11 percent, “The Company Men” is a film that will likely resonate.

This is in spite of the film’s second half, in which first-time film director John Wells overextends his commentary from subtle observation to heavy-handed critique — the film is initially a sympathetic tale of economic tragedy, but morphs suddenly into something far more judgmental. Walker’s lack of skill with his hands is endlessly lampooned, while he himself states that his MBA placed him in a highly insecure employment position. It seems almost as though Wells blames his characters for making poor educational choices. This, combined with a fairy-tale ending that endorses a “return to the good ‘ol days” of an economy based on manual labor, serves to blunt the impact of what could have been a much more powerful film.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *