Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Company Men: Tribulations of the Great Recession

Last year, Up In The Air gave us the dark comedic corporate side of the story. This year, The Company Men picks up the other side of the story and tells us what happens to all those millions of white collar workers laid off in the Great Recession.

The movie tells of three men at different stages of their career, all working for a major transportation conglomerate called GTX (rebranded a decade or so ago, like KFC, from its origins as a more humble, more local Massachusetts ship building facility). Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, the 37-year-old MBA, hot-shit director of sales who is laid off in the first round of downsizing. Chris Cooper is Phil Woodward, the seasoned, fifty-something Senior Vice President who gets let go in the second round. And Tommie Lee Jones is Gene McClairy, one of the top senior management working under his college roommate, best friend, and CEO, James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson).

McClairy fights Salinger every step of the way during this corporate "downsizing," acting as the moral voice defending the employees and integrity of the company, until he becomes a casualty himself. This sets up Salinger as the movie's heavy: the super-wealthy, overpaid, unsympathetic CEO who just wants to raise the company stock price (admittedly, it's a good idea to do so to prevent a take-over and even more painful cuts, but this point gets glossed over). Salinger is building a new, extravagant high-rise corporate headquarters in downtown Boston, and would rather let people go than give up his extravagant lifestyle, his corporate perks, or that marble inlaid office building.

I understand why the movie has to do this - it needs a heavy to keep the drama focused - but by painting Salinger in one dimension and making McClairy the only voice of sympathy, the movie backs away from the complicated issues that drove the downturn. CEO pay is excessive and pointing fingers is justified, but this tactic seems unnecessarily reductive. We're treated to a constant backdrop of financial news and Presidential oratory about the ongoing recession, which is the movie's strategy to broaden the issue from that of a single company and its asshole CEO to a larger economic context, and while it's a nice technique, it just isn't enough to give this story the depth it needs.

What the movie has going for it, however, is its acute sensitivity and portrayal of male ego, age, and class. Bobby and his wife inhabit a well-furnished, modern, suburban home on his up-and-comer $160K a year salary; but that's a mere apartment compared with Phil Woodward's extensive house, itself just a burp on the lawn of McClairy's sea-side mansion. At the bottom of this rung of American commercialism, which seems intricately connected to male self identity, is Bobby's brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), a carpenter who seems to be the only man in this story - besides Salinger - who isn't getting laid off, and who lives in a small, two-bedroom house which is the one where everyone seemingly wants to hang out. You know where this movie is going - Bobby has to learn to swallow his pride and accept Jack's help - and soon, it seems, everyone in the story is working for Jack. Ironic, since construction was hit hard too in the recession, but since Jack is meant to be the blue-collar moral rock of the story, we'll let that slide.

Bobby and wife also need to give up their nice house and their meager dollop of privilege and move in with their parents, but all this humble pie seems to be making Bobby a better husband and father.

It's a hard subject for a movie to take on and do well - and I commend this one for doing it. All the performances are as nuanced as you'd expect from such a cast of fine actors, even if the pattern of angst, disbelief, acceptance, and faith is bit a predictable. It's a typical down-and-out-then-pick-back-up Hollywood story, especially with the Hollywood ending. But along the way it paints a realistic view of the pain that many Americans have been going through. It also gives a poignant picture of the decimation that has happened to American manufacturing. I would have liked more from it - more chances, more complexity to the issues, and more unexpected insights - but the movie does its work.

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