“The Company Men” is one of those movies that inexplicably didn’t catch on at the box office. It boasts an (unfortunately) relevant theme and a cast that includes some of filmdom’s most surefire moneymakers: Ben Affleck, Tommie Lee Jones, Kevin Costner, and Chris Cooper. The writer/director, John Wells, created TV’s long-running hit, “ER,” so he clearly knows how to appeal to the popular taste. So why did it fail to make one-third of what it cost to produce?
One cause might be that it is uncomfortable to watch. Since the Great Depression, the movies have been a place to escape reality. In our current economic malaise, we may not want to think about, um, economic malaise as we munch our popcorn, especially when there are Big Summer Movies dealing with comic book heroes and featuring spectacular special effects enhanced by 3-D glasses. Oh, and this one deals with the people we love to hate, lately: the fat cats pulling down big bonuses, the Fortune 500 companies getting bailed out from the mess they helped create, laying off thousands while raking in millions from their stock options.
For much of its length, “The Company Men” is a downer, following the decline and fall of its central figures. The focus early on is on Bobby Walker (Affleck), a cocky, hotshot salesman who gets let go in a corporate downsizing. The protégé of company VP Gene McClary (Jones), Bobby refuses to accept (or tell people) what has happened to him, insisting he’s going to get a job quickly. Instead, he watches as he loses his Porsche, his big house in the Boston suburbs, and a measure of his self-respect. Through the efforts of his practical wife, played convincingly by Rosemary DeWitt, he gets a construction job with the firm of his brother-in-law (Costner—a former carpenter himself!) and gets some sense of life where his M.B.A. is a liability.
Meanwhile, McClary tries to fight the good, ethical fight inside the conglomerate GTX. His own background as a shipyard worker has been swallowed up in the paperwork, the big bucks, the bennies, and the glitz. His co-worker in the yards and now fellow exec Phil Woodward (Cooper) get fired by his lover (Maria Bello), triggering a crisis in McClary’s work life and his marriage. He goes head to head with his own boss, James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), a bottom-line type who gradually emerges as the film’s villain—and loses.
“The Company Men” has a happy ending, of sorts, but that’s not reason to rent the film. Wells somewhat heavy-handedly makes the point about corporate greed, and the early going is filled with financial lingo that might lose some viewers. But several excellent acting performances and a refusal to sugarcoat the grim national situation make this a film worth renting. It’s appropriately rated “R,” for language and some brief nudity.