DVD Release Date: June 7, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: January 21, 2011 (wide)
Rating: R (for language and brief nudity)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 109 min.
Director: John Wells
Actors: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Craig T. Nelson, Chris Everett

While the country technically has emerged from the Great Recession, its effects continue to linger. The housing market hasn't fully recovered, and the jobless rates remains stubbornly high. Personal savings, which had been minimal during the wealth run-up of the previous few decades, is still extremely low.

How has Hollywood responded? By turning to 3D and ever higher-budgeted, effects-driven extravaganzas. People are reacting by attending fewer movies—admissions dropped in 2010 from 2009 levels—but income is doing OK, thanks in large part to higher ticket prices.

Left out of the industry's grappling over its bottom line is the question of whether audiences want to see stories about characters struggling with the economic downturn. Last year's Up in the Air addressed employee layoffs and from the perspective of those doing the downsizing, but the film was largely about one man's existential crisis. It dealt more with its male and female protagonists' ongoing romance than it did on the strain and struggle faced of any of the employees pink-slipped during the course of the film.

Writer/Director John Wells (executive producer of TV's ER and The West Wing) tackles the issue head-on in The Company Men, a well-performed but curiously unaffecting tale of corporate callousness and career retrenchment. The problem is that the film lays blame almost entirely on one profit-driven corporation, while appearing much less interested in the personal failings of its white-collar heroes. The end message should have been more complex—and challenging—than merely raging against corporate downsizing.

Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a 12-year veteran salesman for manufacturing company GTX, arrives at work after shooting a round of golf to learn that the firm is in the throes of massive layoffs. The company's core shipbuilding division has seen slow business—even its Royal Caribbean account may be at risk—and a proposed merger could be at risk if GTX can't get its share price to a certain level.

With no new contracts in the offing, company leader James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) is improving the balance sheet the quickest way he knows how: through layoffs. Bobby, it turns out, is on the list. Spared for the time being is Phil (Chris Cooper), a close friend of company co-founder Gene (Tommy Lee Jones). Gene has the ear of Salinger, and makes his discontent with the company's direction known, but Salinger believes he's doing what's best for the company—or, as he expresses in a moment of candor, what's best for his and Gene's stock options.

Of the three principal characters—Bobby, Gene and Phil—Bobby is the most fully developed, Phil the least. Gene is the most complex personality of the three: He's having an affair with the company's head of human resources (Maria Bello) and has grown disenchanted with GTX's broader business focus. He wonders what's become of the company's roots in products that can be seen and touched. If Bobby is the heart of the film, the blindsided loyalist, Gene is its clear-eyed conscience, the wiser worker who sees through Salinger and longs to return to an earlier vision of their company's aims.

That appeal to old-fashioned manual labor, and to notions about tactile physical products, is the film's fallback position: MBA degrees, stock prices, mergers—those are all less tangible, and all are frowned upon. If you want career satisfaction, the film says, then learn to build something. That's what Bobby's brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), does for a living, and the film is always respectful toward his blue-collar bluster ("Ship any jobs offshore today?" he taunts Bobby in an early scene.) Simplistic though that contrast may be, it drives Costner's best performance in years. The actor, long criticized for being a bland leading man, lights up the film in his key supporting role.

Yet The Company Men's underlying ideas seem not only old-fashioned, but unrealistic. Is a return to union work and the resurrection of American shipyards the answer to corporate and personal excess? It could be one part of economic renewal, but the film spends more time getting to that partial answer than it does investigating why a high-paid salesman, faced with a layoff, is so close to home foreclosure. A country-club membership and sports car may be symbolic of Bobby's bad fiscal management, but where was his suddenly prudent wife all those years when Bobby was spending so freely? What's her role in all of this?

Worse is the character of Phil, who has nothing beyond his job to give him a purpose in life. Absent employment, Phil has no hope. The risks of being completely defined by one's job are well known, but what's the answer to such career absorption? While The Company Men suggests remedies for what ails Bobby and Gene, it posits nothing but darkness for Phil.