Up in the Air told the darkly comic story of a professional hatchet man who touched down just long enough to wreak havoc in people’s lives before flying off in first class comfort to the next stop on his hit list. The feature debut from writer-director John Wells approaches downsizing from a different perspective. The Company Men takes a long hard look at the kind of human havoc George Clooney’s character left in his wake.
We watch as three men, executives at different levels in the same fictional Boston conglomerate, GTX, fall victim to corporate greed. The first is played by Ben Affleck in one of the strongest performances of his career. Bobby Walker is a 37-year-old sales machine with a $160,000 salary, a mansion in the suburbs, a Porsche, a loving wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and two kids. When he’s cut loose in a round of firings designed to boost the company’s stock price, he’s certain he’ll find another job in a matter of days. And then learns what it’s like out there.
Can you think of an actor who does desperation better than Chris Cooper? His face was made for it. Here he plays Phil Woodward, a 30-year employee who worked his way up from the factory floor of the shipbuilding division. He knows there’s no starting over. After he gets the ax in the next round of cuts, his wife makes him stay away until 6 so the neighbors won’t know he’s lost his job.
Both Bobby and Phil feel betrayed by Tommy Lee Jones’ Gene McClary. He’s not only the number two man at GTX and its cofounder but their close friend as well. What they don’t know is that McClary has been storming into meetings and reading the riot act to the CEO (Craig T. Nelson) protesting the bloodbaths until he himself is finally handed a pink slip for his trouble. This despite the fact that the number one man was his college roommate and, until recently, his best friend. A merger’s in the works, Nelson stands to walk away with $600 million and he’s not about to let minor details like friendship, loyalty or decency get in the way.
So, yes, a bitter, dispirited view of the way business is done these days pervades the film but the cool thing is that Wells finds the humanity which has vanished from the boardroom alive and well outside it. Kevin Costner, for example, is great as Jack Dolan, Bobby’s blue collar brother-in-law. He runs a small time construction business and offers Bobby work when he learns he’s been fired. At first, the thought is laughable. A few months later, his home and car sold and his family installed in his parents’ house, it’s a lifeline. A most unexpected friendship develops.
Jones’ character provides the moral center of the movie. Except for the part where he’s having an affair with a much younger woman, I guess. He fights tooth and nail to prevent downsizing even though he stands to profit enormously from its consequences as one of the company’s largest share holders. When that battle is lost, he takes stock of his life, his friendships, his values and what the American workplace has become. Then he does something remarkable.
Movie critic law prohibits my telling you what that is. What I can say is that, thanks to a poignant, perceptive script and powerful performances all around, The Company Men manages to prove one of the more uplifting movies in recent memory despite its deadly serious subject matter. Whatever kind of business it does at the box office, that’s a pretty impressive bottom line.