It was a few years into my career before I learned the wisdom of something someone said to me: You may love your job, but your job doesn’t love you.
It’s a sentiment that’s been driven home for too many people since the Bush administration’s financial collapse of 2008. That and the subsequent tsunami of unemployment was the result of too much deregulation, too much faith in the wisdom of “markets” and the ridiculous notion that trickle-down economics benefits anyone except those doing the trickling.
John Wells’ “The Company Men” is a solid if predictable story of the lives of the suddenly unemployed. Wells, a longtime writer-producer on “The West Wing” and “E.R.,” has crafted an engrossing drama that’s less about the downsizing than the downsized.
Specifically: If you’ve invested your time and identity into your job, who are you when that job is taken away from you? How do you cope with the shame and anger that goes with having economic security suddenly pulled out from under you?
That’s what happens to Bobby (Ben Affleck), a long-time hot-shot salesman at a large corporation which began, early on, as a small ship-building company. He comes in to work one day, high on the glow of a great golf score – and finds his world has been turned on its head. To appease Wall Street and the stockholders and shore up the bottom line, the company has trimmed dozens of workers, including Bobby.
His boss, Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), is unhappy at the direction the company has taken – and says so to his former partner (and now the CEO), Salinger (Craig T. Nelson). Gene was always against diversifying and now sees a company that has lost its focus and its loyalty to its own employees.
While Bobby looks for work, Phil (Chris Cooper), another long-time employee, sweats out his own situation: He still has a job, but for how long? When the axe does fall, he is even more unprepared than Bobby to cope with joblessness.
As it is, Bobby tries to keep his employment status a secret from the rest of his family – even his kids. When it comes out, his brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), a building contractor with whom he doesn’t get along, offers him a job doing construction. At first Bobby turns up his nose at it – but eventually, having had to quit his country club and forced to put his house on the market, he takes Jack up on the offer.
It’s not like he has a lot of alternatives. He dutifully goes to the outplacement center that his former company provides – but finds it an exercise in futility, a place to at most commiserate with fellow jobless, even as he makes calls and chases any prospect of a job.
Wells would have a big fat target to aim for if he was making a movie about the plight of the American worker, in an era when the employee is at the mercy of the employer. It would be easy to make a movie that waxes nostalgic about the good old days, when there was some kind of bond between worker and company – a loyalty, a commitment to something other than the stock price.
But Wells is more interested in the human toll: what a job means to a man and what it means when he doesn’t have that job on which to base his identity. He examines it from several angles, from the perspective of the characters played by Affleck, Cooper and Jones, each of whom reacts to being given the sack in a different way. Their eventual actions don’t come as much of a surprise, but that doesn’t make the drama any less real or affecting.
Wells gets natural, vulnerable performances from his cast, from the determined-not-to-panic Affleck to the panicky Cooper to the sourly funny Jones and the sardonic Costner. Their Boston accents are up to the task, as are those of their female castmates, Rosemarie DeWitt and Maria Bello.
“The Company Men” is a movie for any time that happens to hit all the right notes for right now. It’s strong and believable, though its subject may not be one that most moviegoers want to confront at this particular moment in history.