I went through a devastating earthquake break-up between my first and second years of graduate school. One of those “I’m going to be alone forever, no one will ever love me, my life is over, I wish she would die in a tire fire” breakups that Alanis Morrissette based the good part of her music career on. My friends were there for me, and one drove me from Philly to Boston to spend Labor Day weekend. We were both movie buffs, and so we decided to walk up to the Landmark near M.I.T. to go see The Brown Bunny. For those of you who only know it as “Vincent Gallo Videotapes Chloe Sevigny Blowing Him,” the rest of the film is basically about a guy falling apart and weeping and painfully struggling with the loss of his girlfriend who he thought had cheated on him. Not exactly the remedy for a broken heart. I remember my father telling me a similar story about when he got back from his tour of duty as a sniper in the Airborne Rangers in Cambodia and Laos. My aunt took him to see a movie: Coming Home. So he gets to sit there, fresh shrapnel wounds healing from enemy shelling, and watch a drama about men bitter with the wounds they got in the war, their wives back home cheating on them, and the post-traumatic stress causing them to commit suicide. Then they went to the beach.
The Company Men really wants to be the conservative, heart-warming successor to Up In The Air. The problem is, Up In The Air was a love story first, and a story about coping with change in the struggling economy second. The Company Men is a story about the shitty job situation and the failing American economy first, and a really melodramatic maudlin generic trope with some glimpses of family second. And the economy isn’t any better. If anything, things are getting worse. So the last thing we need is some heavy-handed, moralistic claptrap trying to ride on a wave of blue-collar nobility. The film is so steeped in the message of blue-collar, white-collar, we all bleed red on the inside, hoo-rah fervor, it’s embarrassing. John Wells, a television writer-producer, makes his directorial debut with this junk, which burbles forth with all the faux stoicism of a Mitch Albom novel while screaming economic morality in your face like Jim Cramer ordering through a windy drive-thru. Worse, it expects us to feel for a bunch of six-figure salarymen suddenly set adrift, most of whom actually have golden parachutes. While more and more graduates spill out of colleges into a market that’s already bare career-wise, and while executives reap bigger rewards from the festering corpses of the same salarymen who now can’t find jobs, the last fucking thing I want to do is watch an overblown and sappy moralistic fairytale from some hack screenwriter who’s lining his own pockets with television residuals.
The talent involved makes this feel like you’re watching a PBS broadcast of a Steppenwolf Shakespeare presentation of one of the lesser ensemble history plays. You’ve got Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner, Ben Affleck, and Craig T. Nelson. Regardless of some of the shitty flicks these gents have graced, that’s a serious fucking cast. And they do a damn good job, being gruff and surly and bitter. And that’s what we’ve got . It’s basically an ensemble piece, three or more interwoven narrative pieces — you know, like a network drama. And like a network drama, The Company Men is chock full of those little inspirational quotes and dramatic catchphrases. But any character that’s not wearing a suit at the beginning of the film feels like furniture there for the main character to make commentary on. The wives, the children, the buck-up black buddy — all of these folks are like jewelry draped around the neck of the main three or four folks to gussy up their pathos rather than as actual emotionally fulfilling co-stars. Affleck’s wife, Rosemarie DeWitt, comes the closest, but even she is nothing more than a sounding board for his character’s whining and fury.
We’ve got the Three Ties Men: young Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), middle Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), and elder Gene McCrary (Tommy Lee Jones). They all work for a shipping company owned by James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), who refuses to sell off his company piecemeal and decides instead to have hatchetlass Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) fire off wave after wave of long-standing employees to drive up the price of the stock. Each one of these white-collar wearies have an increasingly sappy storyline: Bobby was the best salesman of the lot, Phil started on the floor as a welder and grunted his way up to middle management, and Gene was Jim Salinger’s college roommate and helped him start the company. One by one, each one gets cut away and forced to try to find jobs in this difficult economy. The moral of this message seems to be that if you’ve got gray hairs or great degrees, prepare to work at McDonald’s because ALL IS DOOMED. Which would be great — if most of us weren’t living in that fucking nightmare day by day. Worse, most of us are younger folks are getting ousted by the older folks because companies hire the older guys first to steal all their business contacts and ideas before firing them for newbies willing to take mediocre pay in the name of “entry level.”
It’s the way in which we watch the characters flounder that takes all chance for pity away from the characters. Gene’s fighting tooth and nail to keep everyone’s jobs, like some sort of noble knight who dares not send good men into the snowy dark of the current job market. Which would be awesome if Gene wasn’t fucking Sally Wilcox. He leaves his wealthy wife, taking the huge stock option bonzana he reaped, but you know, he really didn’t want because it was blood money. How fucking noble. Pardon me while I choke on this government cheese sandwich, you elitist motherfucker. Then we’ve got Phil, who’s got two kids in college and a crazy wife. Phil can’t find shit because he’s old and nobody wants old no more. So Phil drinks himself into a dark cliched angry hole of oblivion.
Then we’ve got good old Bobby Walker. Bobby’s angry. That seems to be his whole motivator. That he’s rich and doesn’t want to give up the Porsche and the nice home to move home with his parents. He’s too good for blue collar work, like the contracting that his wife’s brother John Dolan (Kevin Costner) honorably does. So we watch as Bobby lose jobs he thought were his, calls up Sally Wilcox and leaves voicemails calling her a fucking cunt, as his severance package falls through, as he’s forced to take up hammer and nails and bumble his way through a contracting job for his brother. It’s all spiced with the concept that the only noble man is he who uses his hands, because that’s the honest, good work. But it’s a little hard to feel bad for a fucking guy who could have picked up a fucking hammer from the getgo. One who was still trying to cling to the illusion of wealth and prosperity, who refused to turn in his toys. And since a lot of us are going through the same thing, only without the really nice house and car and beautiful wife, it’s near to fucking impossible for me to muster even the tiniest shit’s worth of pity for some MBA jerkwad with a massive sense of entitlement.
The entire film is right there in the trailer, from losing his job, to getting the contracting job, to Tommy Lee Jones offering Ben Affleck a job. Wells sells short any chance of the hope of dark comedy or satire or sarcasm by whitewashing his film in the overwhelming melodramatic pablum of a tea-party debate. This film is painfully conservative, from the pity-the-rich to the nobility-of-the-blue-collar struggle. At one point, Craig T. Nelson actually calls out Tommy Lee Jones for guilting him with his own greed by saying, “How much did you make from your shares?” As if defending the fact that the rich made money off the deal because everyone does that. The acting is decent enough, but the story is so embarrassingly overwrought you feel bad for the few actors involved.
The Company Men wants you to take solace in the plight of the white-collar worker losing his job. But unfortunately, too many of us are still struggling to make ends meet to commiserate with the few motherfuckers who can’t make payments on their golf club membership or the mortgage on their million-dollar McMansions. Maybe this would feel better once we get to the other side of the mountain of recessive economy, but as for now, fuck you Wells. No amount of good acting can save what’s such a miserable attempt at saying, “Hey, we all got it bad, single mother. Even the suits are in the shit.” Boo fucking hoo.