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. 

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