When 'Company Men' Lose Their Clean White Collars

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Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck

Tommy Lee Jones (left) and Ben Affleck play executives who lose their high-paying berths at a shipbuilding firm and must find new jobs and rethink identities defined by paychecks and perks. Folger/The Weinstein Co. hide caption

itoggle caption Folger/The Weinstein Co.

The Company Men

  • Director: John Wells
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 113 minutes

Rated R for language and brief nudity

With: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner, Chris Cooper, Maria Bello

When people go to the movies, they're often trying to get away from real-world concerns. So it may seem odd that layoffs and a rough economy should be the subject of a star-heavy story like The Company Men. Maybe not so odd at awards time, though. After all, Up in the Air plumbed this same well around this time last year.

Company Men follows three executives caught in a downsizing convulsion at a shipbuilding company. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) has been living the suburban dream — gorgeous house, happy family, golf at the club on weekends. He has a spring in his step even on the morning when his tales of triumph on the back nine are meet with long faces and he's told he's being laid off.

Bobby is among the first to hear that heads are rolling. And while no one is happy about that fact, some are less happy than others, including a 60-something lifer (Chris Cooper) who's worked his way up from the wharf to an executive suite. Also unhappy is the company's co-founder (Tommy Lee Jones), who bristles as lawyers argue about how to downsize, crossing off the names of people they know only by the notations on their HR forms. His own head is soon on the chopping block.

Kevin Costner and Ben Affleck i

Affleck's Bobby eventually finds work with his brother-in-law Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner) -- in construction, doing a job he'd initially scorned. Folger/The Weinstein Co. hide caption

itoggle caption Folger/The Weinstein Co.
Kevin Costner and Ben Affleck

Affleck's Bobby eventually finds work with his brother-in-law Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner) -- in construction, doing a job he'd initially scorned.

Folger/The Weinstein Co.

These are, let's note, white-collar executives losing their jobs — executives who were pricing stock options as the economy heated up and who may have been responsible in part for its overheating. Their taste for Porsches and pricey antiques makes them a little hard to cozy up to, but the filmmakers acknowledge the class issues at work even as the audience is registering them. Bobby's got a blue-collar brother-in-law (Kevin Costner) who vents a whole different set of issues around the Thanksgiving table; when he offers Bobby a job hanging wallboard, Affleck's suit-and-tie guy is too cocky to accept — until his severance pay runs out.

When The Company Men premiered early this year at Sundance, some thought it felt like a companion piece to Up in the Air, the George Clooney picture that tackled RIFs and layoffs in a less down-to-earth way. Perhaps because we've had 10 months of discouraging employment numbers since then, the more straightforward approach taken in The Company Men feels more in tune with today.

Yes, the film's a little didactic as it lays out the issues. But when it comes to the emotional state of those being laid off, of their families and even of those doing the laying off, it gets things right enough to make audiences squirm.

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