"I will win! Because I have faith, courage, enthusiasm!" chant a group of downsized corporate drones at a dreary outplacement center in The Company Men. The recessionary drama builds up similar bravado of its own. Writer/director John Wells shows admirable faith in his A-list actors as a group of soul-searching executives, and demonstrates courage by producing such a potential bummer about downbeat American trends. The enthusiasm seems missing from The Company Men, however, a well-intentioned socioeconomic critique that seldom musters much passion for its subject.
The "company" of the title is GTX, a global transportation corporation whose alpha-male CEO (Craig T. Nelson) slashes its less productive divisions to drive up the stock price. When sales executive Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) swaggers into the office, crowing about his golf game, he's literally the last to know, and promptly gets canned. Bobby and other "redundant" workers file out with their belongings in the cardboard boxes of shame. Meanwhile, unscathed colleagues like Bobby's mentor Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) feel both relief and bitterness at the situation.
Tommy Lee Jones plays the film's conscience, GTX second-in-command Gene McClary, who quietly mourns the callous business practices that destroy the careers of his former employees. As Phil and Gene also see their jobs put in jeopardy, they worry about being on the hook for expensive school trips or antique furniture, in some sharp digs at U.S. materialism. Meanwhile, Bobby assures his skeptical wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) that he'll get a job soon, with no reduction in their six-figure lifestyle.
Despite finding kindred spirits at the outplacement office (including Eamonn Walker as a sardonic ex-engineer), Bobby discovers that the new workplace doesn't see him as a hot commodity. "I'm a highly qualified applicant for that position!" he barks, twice, when denied an interview. As in Hollywoodland and Changing Lanes, Affleck again proves that he's a much more interesting actor when playing flawed, callow men who fall short of their masculine ideal, as opposed to straight-up tough guys in films like The Town. To borrow a quote from Patton Oswalt, his weakness is strong.
Jones' implosive, minimalistic style proves ideal for Gene as he trudges through black-tie banquets and boardrooms, his sorrowful eyes conveying a despair that gnaws at his soul. At one point he tours a long-closed GTX shipyard and celebrates the honest work of former shipbuilders like Phil: "Building something they could see — these men knew their worth, they knew who they were." Kevin Costner provides a contemporary example as Bobby's brother-in-law Jack, a gruff carpenter who rails against inflated executive pay but reveals a heart of gold.
The Company Men amplifies a theme from the documentary Inside Job and Oliver Stone's Wall Street movies by essentially stating that white-collar desk jockeys have less personal value or nobility than blue-collar craftsmen. The idea doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. No doubt constructing a house or ship bestows a feeling of accomplishment, but does that mean overpaid salesmen like Bobby have lesser character? And does it follow that other people who work in intangibles, like the film's secretaries and human resource personnel, also occupy the moral low ground?
Wells' script gives the characters opportunities to re-evaluate their lives and priorities, but The Company Men's examples of personal renewal never make for sharp conflicts. The most intriguing subplot involves one character's extramarital affair with Maria Bello's corporate hatchet woman, but the premise goes so underdeveloped, it feels like an addition that came after the fact. The Company Men takes an admirable mission to capture our country's economic zeitgeist, but primarily it tries to sell us on things that we already know.