At the risk of damning it with faint praise, The Company Men feels like the film Up in the Air might have been, had it been made by and for grown-ups.
A comparison between the two films is hard to avoid. Like Air, Men focuses on beneficiaries of American boomtimes thrown into a soul search by a seemingly endless run of layoffs. Likewise, Men makes use of significant star power; 1 Ben Aflleck + 1 Tommy Lee Jones = 1 George Clooney. Both films treat corporate culture as an aphrodisiac, although Men's literal interpretation of that metaphor is far less romantic than Air's (and less blinkered). There's even a character-setting montage in Men describing the morning routines of its three main men that, with its insert shots and object fetishism, recalls Air's visual valentines to efficiency. Finally, if Men, the film directorial debut of TV producer John Wells (ER, The West Wing), is superior to that previous film festival hit in most areas of craft (particularly screenwriting and cinematography, credited to Wells and Roger Deakins, respectively), it's also mercifully free of the smug superiority that Jason Reitman injects into his portrait of corporate America in meltdown.
Affleck, Jones and Chris Cooper play three corporate kings whose golf for breakfast, scotch for lunch lifestyles start to dissolve when Bobby, Affleck's cocky young sales exec, is included in a mass layoff that his mentor (Jones) is powerless to stop. The bulk of the film cuts back and forth between Bobby and family's long slide from conspicuous affluence into working class struggle, and the continuing turmoil at the company he left behind. Along the way Cooper delivers grade-A scenery chewing as a factory worker-turned-suit who is forced to realize that the company he gave his life to isn't willing to return the favor.
It's essentially a male weepie about male ego, fueled with the fear of emasculation. Affleck loses his job, and then his Porsche; he then has to move in with his parents and is forced to make the transition from coasting junior exec to blue-collar grunt under the ball-busting brother (Kevin Costner) of his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt). When Bobby finally fell to begging for work, the cocky fanboy blogger sitting next to me removed his glasses and wiped his eyes. The first half of the film breezes past, and then the pace slows to a crawl, which is fitting, maybe: Bobby's manhood is quickly cut, but only after a long, slow process can it grow back.
The biggest problem with Up in the Air is Reitman's fear of subtext, and Wells, too, can be a little too quick to slip in unrealistic bromides ("They were good men," Jones intones when 3,000 workers are laid off, as if they died fighting for their country) and to overstate the obvious (when an engineer is asked why he was laid off, he responds, "I'm a victim of the new global economy!") But refreshingly, Wells allows much to be understood without explicitly spelling it out. His screenplay has a precise feel for the way a certain breed of man speaks (or conspicuously doesn't speak): no bullshit in business, their true feelings and heroes hidden behind a facade of untouchable strength at home.
If the film feels overlong, it's largely because Wells really takes his time, first setting up the world of $16,000 decorative tables and stay-at-home-moms long ago disappeared into afternoon naps, and then exploring the minutia of sudden economic paralysis. In the film's final act, he wrings big drama out of a scheduling snafu and the cost of a room at the Motel 6. Though his creative handling of such scenes tends towards Hollywood bombast, they're still shot through with an uncommon pragmatism. When was the last time you saw a movie in which the plot could not advance to its expected place because a character played by a movie star could only afford a motel room for a single night?
The Company Men is the kind of Oscar-ready adult drama that movie studios used to make, and now mostly don't. Just a few years ago, it would have been produced by a major conglomerate and released just after Thanksgiving; if it was part of this year's Oscar race, Chris Cooper might actually give Christoph Waltz a run for his Best Supporting Actor money. But Hollywood has changed as the fortunes of the nation have, and now Sundance -- the film festival that has branded itself as a showcase for "cinematic rebellion" -- is also the only refuge left for the kind of film that used to fit comfortably in the middle of the movie industry. It's a new global economy after all.
Tags: ben affleck, chris cooper, christoph waltz, john wells, oscars, sundance, sundance film festival, the company men, tommy lee jones, up in the air