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Cinematic corporate downsizing is our generation’s “Grapes of Wrath”, without the corporate muscle subduing union voices. Life, the Depression, we’ve still got a similar malcontent regarding immigrant populations (sadly a standard that has survived the test of time), and plenty of rich people who make a few key decisions that can cost the jobs of thousands (thanks trickle-down economics).
“The Company Men”, then, comes as an anthem of the white collar worker, whose livelihood has become just as threatened as the rest of the so-called “peons” out there. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) was on the CEO fast track at GTX until he joined 3,000 others in the company’s first wave of mass layoffs. Temporarily, stock prices increased for the company, but the financial bandage was too thin, thus 5,000 more became jobless, next taking out Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) and even vice president Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones).
Over the next year, each character handles the end of more than a decade of company service with their own level of grace and…less grace. Refusing to believe the job hunt will last long, Bobby continues with his lavish lifestyle until he finally cedes defeat and takes a blue collar job alongside his brother-in-law, Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner). Just over 60, Phil can’t seem to find a job, or at least one that an MBA student won’t do for half the price and with twice the enthusiasm. Finally, Gene becomes paralyzed by regret over the changes of the company he helped create.
Corporate America is no hero. Job placement is portrayed like an AA group. Motivational speeches, longs hours spent calling people for openings and determining how to “dress for success” become the new job practice without the paycheck.
The “man” is clearly embodied in GTX CEO, James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson). He’s got all the negative characteristics with only a handful of truly heartfelt moments — until those mutate into a cheap ploy for a man whose work ethics and friendship were lost with the humble roots of his once small shipping company. It starts simply as the byproduct of allowing Wall Street a foothold. Shareholders run the show, says James. Making things worse, our leading CEO is paid 700 percent more than the average worker and he just purchased a new office building to construct larger offices for the board. It’s official, “Coach” ain’t very nice anymore.
“The Company Men” does contain a touch of hope, however. Perhaps the strongest message of the film isn’t the need for family and friends during trying times, or any warning to the powers-that-be about the importance of business ethics. Rather, the simple ideas resonate throughout.
To borrow far less dramatic rendition from Mel William Wallace, “They may take our jobs but they’ll never take our freedom.” The worst thing a soulless entity like a corporation can do is fire you, nothing more. Personally, I find such sentiments rhetorically thin. Jobs are best when they’re both lasting and fulfilling, and this film does little to examine that. In fact, for Bobby’s character, losing his job actually humbles him and reconnects him with his family. The others, not so much. But at the end of the day, the message is profoundly simple: life without a job is life without purpose.
Like “The Town”, Ben Affleck proves he’s the lead with a wonderful heart, but the hat’s off for Cooper and Jones. Cooper, always a delight, doesn’t have to do much on screen but remain pensive and occasionally act out, in response to years of commitment to a company, only for that relationship to end as suddenly as a one-night stand confused with a marriage proposal.
Like Cooper, Jones doesn’t offer anything new to his acting repertoire, but he’s just so likable, much like his role in “No Country for Old Men”, but without the nihilism.
“The Company Men” isn’t only a beacon of hope for white collar workers on the verge of unemployment but a refreshing save for the dreary month of January and all its uninteresting additions to movie libraries.
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