Bad movies can inspire perversity on the part of their critics — finely wrought condemnation and searing viciousness. Panning something can be cathartic, so much so that the pan itself sometimes redeems the schlocky thing that bore it. Then there are movies so bad that they inspire responsibility on the part of their critics, compelling only one, single message: Just, whatever you do, don’t go see this movie. John Wells’ The Company Men is of the latter category.
The Company Men would still have been a terrible film if it had been released a year or two ago, but at least it would have made some sense. It’s a recession tale, one of sold-off Porsches, Greenwich backyards, and corporate downsizing — territory that, while still relevant, isn’t really worth a Hollywood blockbuster at this point, due to a fatigue contracted (mostly) from the months and months of human interest stories we’ve had to endure in the Times.
In September 2008, after twelve years in management positions, Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is laid off from his white-collar job. His six-figure salary is automatically funneled into a 12-week severance package. After months of sending out résumés, fruitlessly, he accepts carpentry work with his brother-in-law, played by Kevin Costner. What follows are a series of predictable shop class as soul craft-like epiphanies: Bobby learns the value of tangible results; Bobby learns how to relate (read: play basketball) with his son; Bobby learns how inflated his salary really was. Of course, at the end of the day, Bobby and his family are saved. He gets a job, eventually, and the movie closes with him bellowing inspirational instructions at his new subordinates.
To be fair, summarizing just about any movie plot in a few sentences can make it sound inane. Even the most tired narratives can be restored to luster in the right hands. But The Company Men has real, fundamental flaws — ones that, like the US economy in 2008, feel irreparable. It’s a dangerous move to cast Ben Affleck as a white-collar worker with a vague job description and no interests besides golf. Ben Affleck is that guy at the party who insists you’ve been introduced “like 10 times.” You believe him, but somehow you just don’t remember his face at all. His character in The Company Men comes without any biographical history or memorable traits; it’s all but impossible to care about him. His wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), is his tether to an ethical and practical existence. It’s Maggie who refuses to renew his golf membership and insists upon eating in more often. She looks comfortable in her designer jeans, amidst Nancy Meyers-like throw pillows, but unlike Bobby, she comes from humbler roots, made evident by a Boston accent she cruises in and out of, one about as subtle as Julianne Moore’s on “30 Rock.” Maggie goes back to work as a nurse, and spends most of the film trying to buoy the sinking spirits of her husband.
But Bobby, of course, is not alone in his despair. He’s one of hundreds of the company’s layoffs, including its co-founder, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). Tommy Lee Jones is the film’s primary asset, and the scenes he’s in are the only ones in the black. He looks like George W. Bush’s much smarter cousin: weathered and searching. We’re led to believe that he’s the only man in the company who feels queasy about the mass layoffs or the mega bonuses given to its CEOs. He tells his boss that instead of firing more people, perhaps he should “sell the fucking Degas.” When his wife asks him if she and a friend can take one of the corporate jets to Palm Beach, he gives her an icy stare. “Fine, I’ll just fly commercial,” she huffs. The script is terrible, and lines like this make it seem as though it were written by a focus group. Hey, remember when the Detroit CEOs flew to New York on private jets to ask for a bailout? Well, let’s invoke something like that here!
We know that the economy in 2008 was contracting, and its collapse was startling in its depth. We remember this. Still, despite the dire circumstance, the financial troubles of the Walker family are just plain confusing. How, at the end of his 12-week severance package, are they completely out of money? To the point of selling their house for a low-ball price and moving in with his parents? Don’t they have a savings account? And if not, why isn’t this question addressed? It should be, because as it stands, their situation doesn’t garner too much sympathy. The lazy signifiers of gaucheness are endless: references to Sun Valley, antique tables with outrageous price tags, so many sports cars. Cumulative details do not make a story, and purchasing power does not make a person. This — almost — could the point of the film, and with some major edits (a total rewrite, a different cast) maybe The Company Men could have hit that nail on the head. But it would have been another film entirely. At the apex of his anguish, Bobby tells his wife, “I can’t just look like another asshole with a résumé.” Her response back could be the movie’s tagline: “You are just another asshole with a résumé.”