The Company Men marks the directorial debut of veteran TV producer John Wells (ER), and if anyone ever doubts what industry clout can do, just consider the cast Wells has assembled here. Ben Affleck stars as a corporate sales manager who loses his job after a merger and has to enter the netherworld of outplacement services while clinging tenaciously to a life of privilege he can no longer afford. Chris Cooper plays a company lifer who sweats every round of downsizing. Tommy Lee Jones plays a bigwig trying to fight for the soul of the business he helped start. Craig T. Nelson plays a boss more concerned with business-news headlines than his employees. Maria Bello plays a ruthless HR rep. And Kevin Costner plays Affleck’s blue-collar, corporate-hating brother-in-law.
Those actors—and some wonderfully moody Roger Deakins cinematography—help sell a Wells script that over-explains everything. Wells treats his story like it’s a set of bullet points about the perniciousness of stockholder-driven business decisions, never letting a single “the upper-middle class has it tough, too” or “our families are the real wealth” moment slip past him. But the cast doesn’t treat The Company Men like a slideshow. They take something overly schematic and imbue it with real anxiety, shame, and humility.
To be fair, Wells isn’t entirely asleep at the switch either. As might be expected from a man known for detail-oriented TV dramas, The Company Men has an insider feel when it comes to how corporate layoffs work and how they affect workers of differing ages and social backgrounds. The movie is very clever in the way it repeatedly emphasizes that Nelson and Jones’ business has plenty of money at its disposal; it just has a weakening position in the stock market. (When asked how they could raise the capital to stave off a takeover, Jones surveys Nelson’s office wall and hisses, “We could sell a fuckin’ Degas.”) The actual words in The Company Men are often too blunt, but the movie gets its message across in subtler ways, as when Affleck steps into the outplacement office for the first time, with its shabby cubicles and flickering fluorescent lighting, and realizes just how far he’s fallen. The décor says more than any dialogue could.