In the past, major movie studios used to make interesting films about men and women whose stories and lives mattered. Now they make a lot of garbage like The Dilemma and The Green Hornet, both opening this week and both utterly full of it. While the studios crank out trash, the story-driven and character-driven films are being made by businesses such as The Weinstein Company, which will soon release The Company Men (Jan. 21), the first feature by writer John Wells of NBC’s long-running ER hospital series. The movie is an ensemble character study about work and men, two of ER‘s dominant themes, featuring Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones and Craig T. Nelson. Affleck is as bland and disengaged as ever as an unemployed Bostonian, and he is the least sympathetic character in the movie, exploding during job interviews, evading reality, and basically being a schmuck to his colleagues, wife, and kids for much of the movie. When the worst economy in the United States since the Depression takes its toll on him and his fellow workers, played by Cooper, Lee Jones, and Nelson, they all start spewing profanities and falling apart.
Homes, self-esteem, marriages, children, and deeply held values suffer, evolve and are saved in a steady progression by writer and director Wells, who delivers the structure if not always the substance of what work means to man, the theme, intended or not, of The Company Men. Though certain plot points might have been made less abstract and more compelling, and the top businessman in the picture is partly and unjustly played as a villain, the story weaves in and out of the lives of relatively decent Americans who merely want to work and be happy. But the men find that the American Dream they thought they were fostering is increasingly unattainable. Some may rise, some may fall, and each will be played to varying degrees by how he sees himself in his work. Cooper is excellent as a pinched nerve, Lee Jones fits one of his best roles, Costner is amazing and so is Craig T. Nelson in the movie’s best and most layered performance.
The most enterprising man in the movie is a small character, an unemployed engineer friend of Affleck’s status-seeker, who possesses the true money-making, can-do personality that America used to represent. But this movie is not The Pursuit of Happyness, and it does not come close to dramatizing, let alone honoring, capitalism as that marvelous picture does. Instead, this band of melancholy men struggle to get their bearings after awakening from decades of submission to trophy wives and faith in bureaucracy without any thought to nurturing their creativity.
Yes, The Company Men suggests, whether it means to or not, these sad sacks are causing their own problems and the company founder’s last line about how much money one of them made rings true. In watching each man try to reconnect to his ability to produce, while the newsradio drones about failed government program after failed government program, we are reminded that the company (which is after all in business to profit) is made of men and a man must be productive to be of any decent company to himself. The Company Men tries to show us how it’s done. It doesn’t always succeed, and it isn’t as deep as I’m making it sound, but it’s a good throwback to movies about those we care about in our daily lives and, in these ominous times, you should see it with your family, friends, and neighbors.