Once again, it’s time to catch up with one of those buried treasures: an end-of-year gem that was lost in the last-minute deluge of prospective, presumed Oscar worthies and is even now, swamped by the box office returns of here today, gone tomorrow popcorn fodder such as The Rite. As it is, The Company Men, beautifully written and directed by John Wells, has received no love from Oscar, even in a field that allows ten entries for Best Picture–yet it deserves to be there.
You might look at this as a modern-day Best Years of Our Lives-with its three protagonists dealing with a malaise that reverberates throughout 21st Century America. The Company Men is a heartbreaking film that addresses corporate downsizing through the eyes of three dismissed executives: one relatively young (Ben Affleck), one retirement age (Tommy Lee Jones), and one who is not yet ready to retire (Chris Cooper) and finds himself considered to be useless in today’s market.
It’s not as if this picture of heartlessness in the corporate world is brand-new–anyone who is familiar with Death of a Salesman knows that sentiment has very little value in business-especially with the CEO of a conglomerate. But rarely has this material been covered so honestly and movingly. Cooper, in particular, carefully etches a heartrending turn as the 60ish exec who cannot cope with the fact that the world is quite ready to go on without him. Affleck and Jones do top level work here too. Affleck does a fine job conveying the wounded pride that won’t allow him to admit he’s in dire straits, striving to keep up appearances, and unaware that others are making sacrifices even if he’s not. Jones epitomizes the exec as wounded idealist, someone who looks at industry as a way for men to work hard and create something they could be proud of–and not in terms of the venal mentality (personified by Craig T. Nelson) that insists on building elaborate corporate headquarters while ruthlessly cutting employees so as to enhance stockholders’ already sizable profits. Kevin Costner also contributes an affable, shrewd turn as Affleck’s brother-in-law, a blue-collar contracting company owner who offers Affleck a much-needed job. Costner’s role is another kind of grace under pressure–the heroism of a working man who provides for his family -and even sacrifices a little to help others.
The Company Men isn’t perfect–Maria Bello’s role as corporate cutthroat involved with Tommy Lee Jones fixes that–but it has so many pleasures and builds to such a satisfying, cautiously optimistic conclusion that it’s well worth seeking out.