For certain, getting fired, laid-off, or downsized is not an event that any of us will ever find inspirational. This hardly seems to be a topic that Hollywood would tackle. But tackle it they did. Television’s John Wells (he was the Executive Producer of both ER and The West Wing) makes his film debut with The Company Men as the Director and author of the screenplay.
The film is not about guys being shown the door which is only a few steps away from their jobs on the factory floor. No, in this film, the ax falls on a trio of guys way higher up on the food chain. These guys aren’t on an assembly line, or even in upper floor cubicles. No, these are EXECs. They are living the American dream. One day they are climbing into their Armani suits, taking power lunches, or driving to their golf clubs in expensive foreign cars.
The next day, they’ve found out that they’ve been downsized. Their services are no longer required. The film focuses on three guys. The first to go is Ben Affleck’s Bobby Walker. He’s 37, a Sales Manager with a fast track success story on his resume. He’s done a good job but he has become expendable or as they tell him – redundant.
Bobby is married, has kids, a huge mortgage, a Porsche, a golf club membership, and his wife loves him very much. As an employee with 12 years on the books, his severance package includes 12 weeks pay, as well as the use of office facilities at an outplacement agency.
Bobby is a cocky fellow, and even while his incredulity is evident – You’re firing me? it is hard for him to accept his circumstances. He thinks he’ll be back to his high life in only a very short and brief time. As the days pass, then as the weeks pass, Bobby remains in denial. He doesn’t see a need to sell his Porsche, or give up his golf club membership, or acknowledge that eventually, they will have to sell their home and move in with his parents.
It is hard to feel sympathy or empathy for this Bobby Walker. But that only means that Affleck has done a superb job as he goes from denial all the way down to desperation. As he says to his wife:
“I’m a 37-year-old, unemployed loser.”
Bobby’s boss is Gene McLary played by Tommy Lee Jones. He was the co-founder of the company along with his college roommate James Salinger played by the icy Craig T. Nelson. As CEO, Salinger earns enormous sums of money, as does McLary. But Jones’s character is the one with soul and heart. He cares. He protests against the downsizing.
McLary: This is wrong. They were good people, Jim.
Salinger: We’re running a business, not a charity. I’m late for a meeting.
Salinger is trying to shore up the stock price. He has to keep the shareholders happy. But meanwhile, the ‘shoring up’ is only a prelude to selling off the company. Ergo, Salinger is the villain of the film. He has no soul and he is exceedingly heartless.
When a second round of downsizing becomes necessary, McLary’s protestations become even more vociferous. When a life-long friend, Phil Woodward, a 30 year vet of the company, gets axed, McLary yells to his secretary to have Sally Wilcox, the HR head come to his office immediately. The secretary tells McLary that Wilcox is already in his office. That’s when McLary finds out that he has been downsized as well.
While Bobby Walker is not likeable, Gene McLary is. Phil Woodward played by Chris Cooper is somewhere between them. He is angry about his firing. He realizes that his loyalty to the firm meant nothing. He is also mortgaged to the hilt, is facing college tuition payments for one daughter this year, and another daughter the next. He ‘s got grey hair, is pushing sixty, and his marketable skills are limited to what he was doing at GTX. With so many men, half his age, out there competing for jobs, his outlook is beyond bleak. But his performance on screen is a highlight reel for an actor. Cooper conveys so much from just the expression on his face, or the slump of shoulders. He’s just superb.
So Wells has set in motion the tale of three corporate execs who are asked to trade in their jobs for unemployment. I’m not sure that Wells is asking us to feel empathy or sympathy for these men, or he’s just showing us that being laid off is never good. A lot of folks have found that feeling sympathy for these men who had good jobs with great perks, benefits, and salaries and who are now unemployed, is decidedly unpalatable for them. And for that reason they don’t like the film.
But is Wells’s lesson in this film – Greed is not good – the only one he places before us? McLary’s wife tells him she finally found the right table. He goes over to look at it, and we see the price tag for the table – $16,500. What can you feel for folks in that position?
I think there’s more to the film than what you might feel for these people. Wells seems to be saying that Corporate America is no longer about building something tangible like cars, ships, steel, and so forth. Today’s corporate honchos are concerned only with building a better balance sheet at the cost of the humans who actually do the work.
There’s a tragedy afoot in America due to the corporate downsizing. There’s even a tragedy in this specific film, and I’m not talking about Bobby Walker being thrown off the golf course because his wife has decided to not pay the club dues.
Watch for Rosemary DeWitt’s excellent turn as Mrs. Bobby Walker, and also watch for Kevin Costner, as Walker’s blue-collar brother-in-law, Jack Dolan. After a Thanksgiving dinner, Costner offers Affleck’s Walker a job in his small, one-house-at-time construction company. Walker turns him down saying he can’t see himself hanging dry wall or pounding nails.
Costner then says to his sister, “Your husband is such a dick…”
While No one wants to see a film that is so bleak and depressing that you leave the theater almost in tears, I wonder why it was necessary for Wells to tack on a ‘happy ending’. To me, this was a way of shoring up the film by giving us a more commercially viable softer and uplifting ending. It rang a little false to me.
But that’s what we get. Maybe this upends the import of the film. Maybe Wells should have stuck with Fear and Loathing meet I Will Win Because I Have Faith, Courage, and Enthusiasm which was the slogan we heard when we were at the film’s early stages.