The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Company Men

So the 1930s had the Great Depression. Now, our current recession has been dubbed the Great Recession since the global economy took a world-changing hit in 2007 and 2008. How about some movies about it?!? Not exactly a warm, uplifting story now, is it? Just like movies about Iraq and Afghanistan, these movies seem doomed. Maybe the wounds are too fresh, maybe in years to come they'll gain popularity. One that's good in the moment and will hopefully be remembered pretty well is 2010's The Company Men.

Like many international/worldwide companies, Global Transportation Systems (GTX) is hit very hard when the economy bottoms out in 2008, forcing the higher-ups to approve severe layoffs almost across the board. A 12-year veteran of the company, Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is among the first wave fired, forcing the husband and father of two to desperately search for a new job. Not soon after when things don't go on the upswing, 30-year veteran Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is among the second wave of employees fired, one of thousands across the company. GTX offers a severance package on top of a company meant to help them find new jobs, but the dire situation is lousy just the same. All the while, one of GTX's most powerful employees, Gene McLary (Tommy Lee Jones), sees the writing on the wall but can do little about it. What does the economy hold for both the company and the individual?

I'm basically the most un-savvy business mind ever. While I tried to understand and grasp what the economic downturn, it basically flew right over my head. Thankfully this drama from director John Wells doesn't try to explain the recession, instead focusing on humanizing the recession. We don't see the bigger picture for the most part. There aren't any huge, emotional scenes showing how the recession came to be, how the world, the economy, businesses/corporations adjust to the problem, how it may ultimately be solved at all. We meet the people -- on both sides, being fired and doing the firing -- as they try to survive this downturn unlike anything else the economy and world has ever seen. In that sense, it's a good, old-fashioned drama that allows the cast to do their thing. No gimmicks or anything forced, just personal, human drama.

If there is an issue with that personal, human drama, it's that it can be difficult to fully get behind and support these characters. They're dropped from six-figure paying jobs to searching for jobs. We hear them -- especially Affleck's Bobby -- talk about not being able to afford his Patriots tickets, his country club membership, his family's vacations to Disney. Boo-hoo, I get paid $60 per story I write at work. The same for Tommy Lee Jones' Gene on a smaller level, one particular line hamstringing an otherwise very effective monologue. Cooper's Phil is the most sympathetic -- and similarly most underutilized character -- a factory worker turned office supervisor trying to pay for his daughter's college tuition. End of rant. Moral of the's hard to feel too bad about people complaining about losing the ultra-luxuries of being rich. Yeah, #FirstWorldProblems.

That minor rant out of the way, I thought the acting was uniformly solid across the board. Lack of sympathy aside, Affleck does a good job showing how low a man can get, how frustrating it can be when your world is completely pulled out from under you. Jones is his typical professional self, a solid role that shows not all big business is evil. He's worked his way up to the hierarchy and appreciates the work it's taken to get there. He also sees the hypocritical excesses all around him but knows there is little he can do at the same time. Cooper is underused as Phil, but his character is key to show a variation on how some people handle losing their job. Because it's a very real part, his scenes can be incredibly uncomfortable to watch. Also look for Kevin Costner as Jack, Bobby's blue collar brother-in-law who owns his own construction/contracting company, never missing a chance to dig Bobby for his evil ways with big business.

It was a wise choice to give all these individuals some personal flaws so we're not seeing "perfect" people thrown out on their backside. Affleck's rage comes out in one particular interview, Bobby making comments that are just wrong. Jones too has a personal secret that came as a surprise. We see all these little foibles, these little idiosyncrasies in all of the cast. Also joining the cast is Craig T. Nelson as GTX's ridiculously rich CEO, Maria Bello as GTX's battle axe, the woman placed in charge of organizing the mass firings, Rosemarie DeWitt as Bobby's wife, and Eamonn Walker as Danny, a fellow victim of the mass firings who bonds with Bobby.

First-time director John Wells has a winner here. It's low-key in its message without beating us over the head with that message. Because of the subject, the story can be a tad bit uncomfortable to watch. We're seeing people at their lowest, their most desperate. 'Company' doesn't try to explain it all, to fix it all with a snap of the finger. The ending does provide some hope for the future, building up the tenacity and courage of the American worker. There is no easy answer to the current recession so why force one on the viewer? It's a good movie, a solid drama that capitalizes on a very strong cast. 

The Company Men (2010): ***/****

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