10.10.2011

How Did You Do It? A Conversation with Daniel Clowes

Portions of this interview were used in a recent article I wrote about Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine for the SF Weekly. My thanks to Mr. Clowes for his time.

You have famously criticized art school in your work. Do you think art school was a waste of time? What did you get out of it?

It wasn’t really a waste of time. At the time I went, nobody really had any notion of teaching the kinds of things that I wanted to learn. There’s something about the rarity of a kid who really wants to learn these specific skills and has a goal-oriented plan in mind where he wants to accomplish certain things very specific, and to have people tell him that those aren’t worthy goals and that nobody is going to teach him these things -- it was frustrating and humiliating. 

I went there with this bright-eyed kid from the Midwest moving to New York quality of wanting to be in the town where all the great comic books were produced and learning the secret arts of how those were put together -- and then to be told that, really, you should just learn how to do second-rate abstract expressionist paintings, and that that was more valid than trying to tell a story in pictures, it was just really dispiriting. 

But, that experience was also very helpful, later on -- learning that I needed to figure out all of this stuff for myself, and come at it through my own experimentation. 

So they had no cartooning instruction at all at that time?

No, not at all. Nobody taught it.

What was your area of focus?

When I started, my major was drawing. I figured that would be the most helpful. And it was sort of useless. You do some figure drawing and stuff, but it was just a tiny subset of the stuff I needed to learn. I switched to graphic design, and that wasn’t quite what I wanted. And then I switched to illustration. 

It was like going to school to be a dog trainer and they teach you to raise fish or something. A lot of it just wasn’t what I needed to learn. And comics aren’t that much about art. I feel like art school isn’t necessarily the place to go. It’s closer to writing than drawing in many ways. Now they have schools that are devoted to teaching comics. And maybe that’s not such a good thing, either. Maybe it’s better to learn it on your own.

What were the immediate post-college years like for you? What paid the bills?

It seemed like an eternity, but I spent a year living with roommates and sponging off of girlfriends and stuff. I got out of school, and all my teachers said, “You’ve got this great portfolio! You’ll be getting illustration work in magazines right away!” I had enough money to spend six months in New York taking my portfolio out to magazines trying to get illustration work. It seems like it [lasted] ten years. 

Every day, I’d drop off my portfolio and wait around until the end of the day and I could tell the art director hadn’t even looked at it. It was the most frustrating thing. I never got a single illustration job. 

And just when I was ready to give up and go back to Chicago and live with my parents again, a friend of mine got a job as the editor of Cracked magazine. He just blundered his way into that job. So I wound up getting work in Cracked magazine and that saved my life. That was my first professional work. I was about 23. I’d been out of school about half a year. 

Have you made it solely off cartooning income since Cracked?

Yeah. Back then, I don’t think I made in the five digits for at least five or six years, but you could live really cheaply. I remember at the time thinking it was just a crazy amount of money we needed to come up with, but now it’s inconceivable that you could live on $7,000 a year.

How long did you stay in New York?

Not long after that. That was the first thing I had to come to grips with. “If I’m going to be doing this, I’m not going to be living here.” Not even in the wilds of Brooklyn, where I was living. But in Chicago you could get a nice apartment for $300 a month. 

I heard you say recently in response to a fan’s question at a Q&A that the way your art looks now reflects the way “I always thought comics should look.” Could you expand on that? Because it almost sounds like you’re saying that comics are a visual abstraction.

I think what I was stumbling through with that is: The way I’m trying to get my drawings to look is to where – through my eye – they have no style at all. When I was kid, it seemed to me that there were certain comic artists who were drawing without any quirks or anything that differentiated it from a standardized vision of how comics would look. So I’m trying to do that. To me, my work looks almost like it has no style, like I’m trying to just transcribe reality in the way I see it. 

When I read people talking about it, I get the idea that it has a very distinctive style. I’m always shocked when people can recognize my work – when they just see a face or something and know that I drew it. I think, “How would you know?” 

But I think that’s what a style is, it’s that little system of psychological quirks that come through in the work that the author is probably the last to see. The kind of work that I dislike or that always seems kind of cheap to me is when somebody is really trying to have a style, and tries to make everything look a certain way to fit into their quirky style. Illustrators especially do that -- I just always find that hideous.

I thought The Death Ray was maybe the darkest story you’ve written --

Maybe.

-- and it occurred to me that a lot of the characters in your stories are angry people, but it come out in different ways. And it’s often funny. But in this book, it’s almost never funny. There’s less humor. 

I find some of it funny, but in ways that I can’t imagine anyone else would ever find funny.

The protagonist becomes truly dangerous. Did you consciously shift away from humor?

When I set out to do that story, I did not think of it as something that was necessarily going to be funny. You never really know which way they’re going to go when you begin. Sometimes they become funny without you really wanting them to. 

I had the character in mind – the two versions of the character: the young, na├»ve, lonely kid and the bitter, angry middle-aged man. And trying to navigate how one becomes the other became the focus of the story. They become about the characters and the characters come alive and you can’t really change them at a certain point – they just become who they are – and he became a really dark, angrier-than-usual character. 

A lot of the response to The Death Ray is that it’s your reaction to superhero comics, which seems kind of simplistic.

Certainly it’s not a response to the last forty years of superhero comics [laughter]. I haven’t really read a superhero comic since I was seventeen years old. I tried to read Watchmen, and that was about it. It’s just not something I’m that interested in. 

But it certainly is a response to how I felt when I read the early Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics when I was fourteen years old – and what I hoped to get from superhero comics as a teenager, but never quite did get. This feeling of – can’t even quite describe it – but there’s a certain quality suggested by the imagery in superhero comics that I never felt was quite delivered, that seemed really charged with emotion and kind of big and dark and strong. And then when you actually read them, they’re just kind of frivolous and silly and formulaic. So I was trying to fulfill something that I had imagined could exist when I was fourteen or fifteen years old.

Right – as in Peter Parker never coming across as a real kid?

In the early ones, he kind of did. I kind of related to him. Then all of a sudden Steve Ditko stopped drawing it and Peter Parker puts on about forty pounds of muscle and he looks like the most hateful jock creep. And the whole point of the comic is he’s this 120-pound bookworm with no friends who lives with his aunt – and then all of a sudden he’s Big Man on Campus, like he’s a superhero in his secret identity as well when he’s Spider-Man. It’s just a completely different idea. I remember even as a kid being bummed out by that. 

How did you meet Adrian Tomine?

I moved to Berkeley in 1992. And he had sent me his mini-comics when I was living in Chicago, and so I knew his work. I was probably about 29 or 30, and I remember thinking that he had to be 26 and 27. He was really good, and he seemed like he might be just a few years behind me and the Hernandez brothers. I just figured he was around that age.

He had done an issue of his Optic Nerve mini-comic with his photo on the cover. At the time, my wife was studying at Berkeley, and she said, “I’m pretty sure this guy is in one of my classes.” And I said, “No, no, this guy’s like 27, 28. I’m sure it’s just a bad photo.” She’s like, “No, I’m sure I’ve seen this guy.” Next day, she says, “Oh I talked to that guy. That’s him – Adrian.” And it turned out he was the youngest guy in the class – he was only 18 or 19.
And then it turned out he lived a block away from me, which was quite an odd coincidence – that somebody that talented would wind up on the same block as me. We wound up getting together for coffee and becoming friends. Instead of having friends his own age, he used to hang out with me and all the older cartoonists – a bad influence on him.

How would you say you’ve influenced one another’s work?

He’s certainly influenced me just by the way he is so adamantly into telling these stories, and he doesn’t try to do any crazy gimmicks in his illustration. He’s just focused on telling the story in the best way possible. That’s always been very inspiring, for me to see that – to see a kid who is really trying to hone his narrative skills as opposed to just showing off with his drawing, which is certainly what I was interested in when I was 18 or 19 – just doing cool drawings in my comics. And he seemed completely uninterested in dazzling anybody with his artwork. He just wanted to affect people emotionally, and that was something to follow.

And I love that he sticks to drawing about Berkeley a lot, when he was living in Berkeley. I could recognize almost every location in those comics – the Chinese restaurant that used to be on College Avenue. It’s great to have that record of it. He had a small orbit in his world, and he really focused on it and tried to make it something universal.

Is that something you’ve tried to do as well? I certainly noticed that the locations in Wilson and Mr. Wonderful look like the East Bay.

Wilson’s certainly all Oakland, as is Mr. Wonderful. They’re in that orbit. I like the idea of imagining some random guy that I’d see every day on my dog walk – having him come to life. That’s where those two came from.

Have you seen Optic Nerve #12 yet?

I just got it.

There’s a really funny postscript he did about his struggle to continue doing the comic.

Yeah – I liked that!

You’re quoted in there, from some NPR interview. Do you think there’s any value any putting out your own anthology comic anymore?

There’s plenty of value. It’s just the marketplace seems so hostile to it. When I was coming to grips with – when I was doing Wilson, I was thinking, “Do I do this as a comic? Do I do it as a book?” It seemed like an act of defiance to do it as a comic, and it seemed to be so freighted with some kind of meaning that I didn’t intend for the book to have. I didn’t want it to be about the format or about the marketplace. I want the work to be what people are focusing on, so I want it to be in a format that feels the most natural to the readership. And I felt like that had shifted from periodical comics to graphic novels.

I love reading comics like Adrian’s, although I have to say when I read it, I felt this feeling of pain at the end, like, “This took me 20 minutes to read, and it could be two years before I read another one.” 

When everybody used to do comics, you knew that next month, Chester Brown would do a comic, and after that, Peter Bagge would do a comic. There was always going to be something to read. But I can’t think of the last comic before this that I bought or read. When there’s one every year or two years, it’s a very different thing, and something kind of painful about it!

I always think that when I’m done reading – even something book-length, “God, I just read that in an hour.”

And I know Adrian worked thousands of hours on that comic. And you can’t ever do the math in that way. I always think the cumulative hours spent by all the people who read it has to exceed the amount of time you spent on it. [Laughter]

Comics seems like a great medium for a perfectionist. And screenwriting seems like it’s completely the opposite.

In terms of the final product, that’s absolutely true. But if you just think of the screenplay as the finished work, which is the only way I know how to do it, you actually have even more control over the screenplay than you do over a comic. Because once a comic starts going in a weird direction that you might want to correct, you’re not going to re-draw forty pages and make things work out. Comics are very organic. They go in their own way and you’re stuck with the final result. You could spend a lifetime re-drawing things over and over to get it right. 

But in a screenplay, you can cut out 40 pages in the middle and put something else in. You can change characters’ names and descriptions. So there’s a certain fluidity to it that, to me, is really refreshing. But I have to then cut off all expectations the minute I’ve sent the script off to somebody. 

But if someone writes a play, somebody could do a hideous production of that play, but that doesn’t affect the play. So I sort of think of it in those terms, even though nobody really reads a screenplay as a play – and it’s a very different thing than a play. 

When you’re working in comics, how tightly do you script before you start working on the art?

My goal is always to script very tightly and plan everything out in advance. But then I find you dissipate all your energy. A big part of comics is maintaining your energy and your focus and your enthusiasm. You have to be able to get up every Monday morning and say, “Okay, I’m ready to get back to page 63 of this comic,” with the same level of interest that page 1 had. 

To do that, I find that I have to be a lot more spontaneous and keep the thrill of possible catastrophic error alive the whole time. Which means I do have to re-draw things every now and then, or finesse my way around things. But after you do it for long enough, you can figure out how to make things work or minimize your anguish around mistakes.

Fantagraphics is putting out a collection of Nancy strips, many of which came from your own collection.

I found it baffling that I had the best collection of Nancy strips. I bought a bunch of them off eBay in like 1998. It didn’t take any special effort. I just found some dealer that had a whole bunch of them, and I bought all of them I could get my hands on. And when it came time to do the book, they were looking all over and they couldn’t find them anywhere. And I had almost all of them.

What form did you buy them in?

It was some crazy collector who cut them out of the paper and wrapped them in Saran Wrap in little blocks, so I have blocks of every year. And I’m missing a few, but I have pretty much everything from 1943 through 1969 or something like that.

How would you characterize yourself as a comics collector? Do you have particular areas of interest?

I’m not one of those completists who’s got to have everything by everybody. In this case, I just really wanted to read these Nancy strips. I was trying to find stuff I couldn’t get otherwise. If I’d known they were going to do these collections now, I would have just been happy to just wait for them. But for years, the only way you could read a lot of these old comics was to just get the original tear sheets. So I have stacks and stacks of old Sunday pages and things like that.

9.29.2011

The Turtleneck and Jeff


Every time that other company made an announcement, Jeff waited in the wings, sweating, thinking, "It's my time now!" He was tired of waiting. He had his lines memorized. He had quality announcements, too!

But the man in the black turtleneck always showed up -- even when least expected. He always showed up and played his part, and played it well, in that turtleneck and blue jeans. His hair cropped just so, a hint of the hipster added a certain edge to the dork factor. He always showed up, leaving Jeff waiting -- again. The Turtleneck always trumped Jeff's best chances for success.

But one's man's tragedy is another man's opportunity. Wednesday, Jeff was center-stage. He chose his costume carefully, wary of comparisons. Comparisons would be made, he knew, so why not tweak their expectations? He wore black, but it was a jacket instead of a turtleneck. His head was shaved, but he was quite bald to begin with.

That other company had design in its corner. It had slick simplicity and good ideas that people responded to. But when The Turtleneck retired, Jeff knew what he had to do. Jeff's pot was always simmering -- things bubbled, but never quite frothed over, although it’s true that the Kindle was his iPod. But streaming video was an add-on, not a revenue stream. Jeff had ideas, but was unsure how to package them, where to position them, or when. He had a sense of where his business would go, with or without him, and he was going to make damn sure he was along for the ride -- just as The Turtleneck had done at his company. Jeff was going to seize this moment with the kind of bombshell he always knew he'd need to drop. The device, the software, the demand, the market, the momentum, and the timing -- he had it all right now, at this moment. It was his.

The Turtleneck was out of the picture. Jeff was free to be his own man again. Apart from a period as a new-kid media darling in the late 1990s and his periodic text-based announcements to customers, Jeff had remained quiet, partly because he knew that The Turtleneck was the tech world's key celebrity, and he did not want to compete. But things had changed.

On Wednesday, his costume designer and make-up man came in early, following an extended color and fabric consultation earlier in the week. Jeff had a protein shake that was hard to keep down, and stayed on the treadmill until his nausea had subsided. He repeated the phrase "Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet" to limber up his tongue and jaw muscles. A masseuse pummeled his shoulders for a good ten minutes and a voice coach helped him keep his Spanish accent a secret as an ancient voodoo priest anointed him with perfumed oils.

His time was now. He was no longer an understudy. The lights came up, and he walked out to greet the world anew.

7.06.2011

Michelle Amador's Heartland Tour (and Me)

I'm honored to be a part of this thing. 

Michelle Amador and her husband Tim Bulkley are friends of mine from way back. Now based in New York, Michelle has valiantly advanced her career in the non-profit arts world, while continuing to grow and gain recognition as a singer-songwriter. Her roots are in the jazz tradition, but her sound goes well beyond that. Tim is a drummer beyond compare - he has a jazz background as well.
 

Michelle Amador
This summer, Michelle is touring the nation with a grassroots angle. Each stop on her Heartland tour will entail some combination of exploration, communication with other creative people (artists and non-artists), and performance with local artists working in a variety of disciplines. The concept was developed by Erin Coppin, Michelle's close friend, and whose "Love is All Around" photo project provided a lot of the inspiration behind the tour (http://www.inheartlandia.com/)

Erin and Michelle's goal is to foster an ongoing dialogue that bridges national regions, creative goals, and modes of expression. In Michelle's words, it's "a collaborative, cross-medium artist/non-artist search for what's at the center, for what's in our hearts - our own, and those we encounter."

Barbara Gray
Tim Bulkley
Goh Nakamura
I am excited to be participating (reading from my own work) in two of the Heartland events: one in Los Angeles on Sunday, July 17th, and one in San Jose, CA, on Tuesday, July 19th.  

In Los Angeles, we'll be joined by comedian Barbara Gray, and in San Jose we'll have singer/songwriter/actor Goh Nakamura with us.  At each event, Michelle will perform her own work and that of others with a small combo featuring Tim on drums.

The Heartland tour is being funded by a Kickstarter-style campaign, launched recently by Michelle and Erin, and which has already raised nearly half of the tour's budget. Admission to Heartland tour events is open to the public at the price of a very modest suggested donation to the tour. Donations to the Heartland campaign - which I strongly encourage! - can be made here:

 
http://theheartlandtour.bandzoogle.com

Info on the dates I'll be joining Heartland are below. For the full tour schedule, check the link above.


Heartland in Los Angeles
Michelle Amador and Tim Bulkley, with comedian Barbara Gray and readings by Casey Burchby
Location TBA
7:00 p.m.
$10.00 suggested donation

Heartland in San Jose
Michelle Amador and Tim Bulkley, with singer/songwriter Goh Nakamura and readings by Casey Burchby
The Ronco Home
1651 Campbell Avenue
7:00 p.m.
$10.00 suggested donation

6.30.2011

How Did You Do It? A Conversation with Rob Corddry

Rob Corddry’s newest series, Adult Swim’s Childrens Hospital (that’s right: no apostrophe), is a gag-a-second mockery of one of television’s old standbys: the medical drama. Childrens Hospital is the next logical step for Corddry, who began as an actor in college, continued into improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade, and landed a spot on The Daily Show in 2002. Since then, he’s made some memorable appearances in movies, including Hot Tub Time Machine, and a role as presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer in Oliver Stone’s W.

On Thursday, June 30th, SF Sketchfest will present the cast of Childrens Hospital live on stage, along with the cast of the forthcoming series National Terrorism Strike Force: San Diego: Sport Utility Vehicle [NTSF: SD: SUV] – a parody of police procedurals and action programs in the vein of 24. That show, which premieres next month on Adult Swim, was created by Paul Scheer, formerly a partner of Corddry’s at Upright Citizens Brigade, and co-stars Rob Riggle, who worked with Corddry both at UCB and The Daily Show.

I started my recent conversation with Corddry by asking him about the earliest part of his career.

What was your training prior to joining the Upright Citizens Brigade?

I was a theater and English major in college, and literally the day after graduation, I moved to New York City. I hit the pavement pretty hard and was set on becoming the highest-paid crappy Shakespearean actor ever. I would get Backstage magazine and audition for absolutely everything. And one of the things I got was a play where I met this woman who was in a sketch group. So I auditioned for the sketch group, and I got it. And I was like, “Do I really want to do this? I’m a very important Shakespearean actor.” But six months later, I was furiously writing sketches and learning how to do comedy. We were terrible. It was the worst sketch group in New York’s history. Then I started a sketch group with a bunch of friends called Naked Babies, which exists today – but then, we found UCB.

What years were you at the UCB in New York?

I was actively doing shows every night from about ’97 to about 2001, 2002. When I got on The Daily Show, I just didn’t have the time. And from then on, I’ve just performed sporadically. But for a few years, it was five to seven shows a week. Paul Scheer [Childrens Hospital guest star and creator of NTSF: SD: SUV] and Rob Huebel [co-star of Childrens Hospital] and Rob Riggle [fellow alum of The Daily Show and co-star of NTSF: SD: SUV] were in the class ahead of me.

Were you aware at the time that The Daily Show was going to be a leap forward for you? Looking back on it now, how do you think that experience affected your approach to comedy in general?

I was certainly aware of how special it was. It definitely seemed like a “right time, right place” scenario. We knew it was lightning in a bottle. I wasn’t really thinking about how much it was going to help my career – any more than I always do. [Laughs] My career has been a very long, slow, gradual turtle-walk up a long flight of stairs. But that’s good because that means there’s always an easy learning curve. But The Daily Show did teach me how to be funny on TV – which is how it informed my present work.

Has anyone in the press ever tried to pull a Daily Show-style interview on you?

There was one kid – I was in Austin for something, and somebody interviewed me on the street. Some college kids. And they kept hitting me in the mouth with the microphone. I was like, “Really? You’re pulling a Mo Rocca, circa the year 2000 on me?”

Given that you and most of the cast of Childrens Hospital have a background in improv, I wondered if improvisation played any part in the development of the show.

The development process was very deliberate. But there is improv happening once we feel like we’ve got what we need in the script. Of course, it would be a shame to waste the talents of these brilliant improvisers – I mean, Rob Huebel is probably one of the best improvisers alive. So, I can definitely point to a couple of lines in each episode that are improvised. But for the most part, it’s a tightly-scripted show. And we all have our strengths. Jon Stern, who will be at the show in San Francisco, is one of those rare producers who can write a great joke and can also book a caterer. David has way more experience with that than I do, too. I’m just the monkey in the corner spouting jokes and clanging cymbals.

Are you still the primary writer? You’re credited with many of the scripts.

I like to write about half of them. And I enjoy doing it. It’s really fun to write this show. But also, the three of us edit every script that comes in written by someone else – just to control the voice of the show.

I understand that when you brought the show from the web series to Adult Swim, you preferred the 15-minute format offered by Adult Swim as opposed to the standard 30-minute format of most comedy shows.

Absolutely. I had no interest in bringing it to television at all, until I heard that there was such a thing as a 15-minute format. I just don’t think this relentless joke-after-joke kind of show would be interesting after 15 minutes. This is joke-based comedy, as opposed to character- or relationship-based comedy.

The spinoff [NTSF: SD: SUV] begins airing next month?

As much as I’d like to take credit, it’s not a spinoff and I had nothing to do with it. Jon Stern is the connection – he’s executive producing it with my good friend Paul Scheer. And we come from the same family of comedy – I’d say it’s the same genre. But there’s no real connection to Childrens.

But it [NTSF: SD: SUV] began as a phony advertisement during the re-broadcast of the initial web version of Childrens Hospital on Adult Swim.

That’s right. Paul was nice enough to bail me out, in a way, because I was about 45 seconds to a minute short for one episode. They had shot that fake commercial as sort of a pilot, so Jon suggested sticking that in there. I said, “Great! As long as there’s a lot of punching.”

Will the San Francisco show mark the first time the Childrens Hospital cast has performed live together?
 
Last season we did some screenings, where we did some live bits – some successful, some not. We’ve learned our lesson and we’ve planned this show out a little bit more. We’re each going to show an episode that hasn’t been seen yet, and we’ll do a Q&A together. And we’ll do some bits. Actually, we’re slowly plotting a live Childrens Hospital tour. We wanted to get it out this fall, but that’s not going to happen. So ideally, we’d like to do it in the spring, before colleges let out. It’s a beast to put together, and none of us have a lot of time. This would be a tightly-scripted show. There would be live music – actually, I believe it’s going to be a musical.

This article is an expanded version of a piece that originally ran on the SF Weekly's arts blog, Exhibitionist. The original version is available here.

6.21.2011

On DVD: The Company Men


A topical film that grapples (somewhat aloofly) with the importance of "work" in our daily lives, The Company Men is reasonably intelligent and well-acted - and it features Kevin Costner finally pulling off an accent. Writer-director John Wells tackles the ongoing recession with sensitivity, portraying three characters (played by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris Cooper) whose positions within a single large corporation are affected in differing ways by the company's need to continue providing good quarterly results to investors amid an ongoing economic crisis. Yet Wells doesn't quite go far enough; these three characters' identities are very much bound up in their jobs, and Wells never properly examines the consequences of self-identifying as a salesman, an executive, or a middle manager in a changing world that challenges our own ethical and moral standards.

Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a successful sales executive at a large ship-building corporation headed by Jim Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). Unexpectedly finding himself the victim of down-sizing, Walker has trouble adjusting to unemployment. He doesn't want to give up his Porsche or his country club membership, stubbornly believing their symbolic value will help get him a new job. His pragmatic wife (Rosemarie Dewitt) insists that he find a job - any job - to help keep their family afloat. So Walker goes to work in construction for his brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), essentially learning a new trade from scratch. Meanwhile, his former company continues to fall apart, with company co-founder McClary and the depressive manager played by Cooper also losing their jobs.

Wells elicits fine performances from his outstanding cast, who have numerous Oscars among them. Jones is particularly fine, his face a road map of heartache and hard living that lends a somber self-awareness to McClary, who knows only too well that many have suffered at his expense over his years of hard work and empire-building. Nelson is beefy and dickish as a cold pragmatist who will do whatever it takes to keep his company in the black. And Costner strikes the right note as a blue-collar professional who wryly enjoys the satisfaction of an honest day's work.


The film's plot is a straightforward look at a loss of pride and the ensuing struggle for redemption, placed in a contemporary, realistic milieu. When Walker and several former co-workers gather at a placement agency as they seek employment, the sense of shame that attends a loss of status and income is palpable. Yet the Affleck character's struggle is diminished when we see him driving a Porsche, living in a house that's got to be 3,000 square feet, and playing golf as he sees fit. This could have been treated as a poignant reminder that many of our larger economic problems can be attributed to massive consumption and ignorance on an individual basis, but these scenes are not handled that way. Walker is simply a prideful man who doesn't want to be stripped of his toys.


And this brings me to what troubles me about
The Company Men, which, as I suggested, is competently made and well-acted. Yet there's a nagging hollowness within the movie's real, tangible themes. Wells does not search hard enough for the significance of work in people's lives. Other than "having a job" as a source of pride and income, there is not much in the movie that talks substantively as to what that work really accomplishes beyond its immediate benefit to the employed. In other words, the questions I would have liked to see asked include: Why do we work at the jobs we have? Why do we have those jobs in the first place? These and related questions are exactly the ones that the newly-unemployed have the opportunity to ask and the present recession has indeed led many to shift their career tracks entirely.

The conclusion of
The Company Men sees Affleck throwing in with the Jones character as they launch a brand-new enterprise together, in an attempt at empire-building all over again. The final scenes are hasty, and I have to assume they were tacked on at the last minute. This assumption is bolstered by an "alternate ending" included on the DVD as a special feature. This alternate ending doesn't add different footage, it just draws the film to a more organic close at an earlier and more appropriate point. In short, Affleck stays on with Costner's character, having decided to make a go of it in the construction business. This ending at least gets within shouting distance of the issues I would have like to see raised in the film, with Affleck re-assessing his career and the kind of people he wants to work with. But the ending we have skirts all of that, making the point that only a legitimate corporate career can provide Affleck with fulfillment - a depressing prospect, to be sure, and a low note upon which to conclude the film. 

Read the full review here