White collar blues

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 21, 2011 - 11:56 AM

Change arrives fast when three laid-off execs find themselves on the outside looking in.

Like the Johnny-come-lately Iraq drama "Green Zone," "The Company Men" arrives with a wealth of talent and honorable intentions, and about three years tardy. An efficient message picture about the human toll of corporate downsizing, it's too far behind the curve to have much impact. Last year's "Up in the Air" slipped in just before the cutoff date. Unless there are nostalgic viewers eager to revisit the nadir of the Great Recession, there's not much new information here to compel your attention.

The film does offer a novel focus, however. It follows three executives who range from prosperous to filthy rich as they transition to post-corporate life. Ben Affleck plays Porsche-driving hotshot Bobby Walker, a midlevel executive at GTX, a Boston conglomerate that will be more profitable without the shipbuilding subsidiary that employs him.

A couple of rungs farther up the ladder, and the seniority chart, is Chris Cooper as senior manager Phil Woodward. Just below the CEO there's Tommy Lee Jones as Gene McClary, the firm's financial honcho and unofficial conscience -- surely a luxury in today's ever leaner and meaner environment.

Each man follows a different path when the pink slip arrives, while dealing with similar issues of disappointment, resentment and uncertainty. Writer/director John Wells, one of the movers behind TV's "The West Wing" and "ER," launched the project after some family members lost their jobs, and his treatment of the subject is subtle, realistic and sensitive.

Affleck, who saw his own high-flying career shot down after disastrous choices like "Gigli," looks genuinely stricken when his character realizes he's just "a suit and a résumé," and that he has been living far beyond his means. Still, it's his wife (a strong turn by Rosemary DeWitt) who restructures the household budget in line with his plummeting income. The change in his relationship with his abrasive contractor brother-in-law (Kevin Costner) when he comes asking for work is wonderfully observed. The builder is quietly pleased that Mr. High-and-Mighty got his comeuppance. And he savors the opportunity to rebuke Bobby for his sloppy carpentry.

Cooper conjures a bubbling vat of stomach acid as a middle manager struggling to make sense of the current employment market. The indignity of his situation is painful to behold, and with less time to rebound, his desperation is palpable. For the first time he realizes that to the world at large he looks old, and his eyes are shocked.

Jones, who glides comfortably to earth with a golden parachute, is decent enough to be troubled by what's happening to his colleagues, to say nothing of his industry and his country. When you're a company's co-founder, fired by your partner and best friend so he can hang a few more Impressionist paintings on his wall, that's a special kind of hurt. Although his lifestyle is the most lavish -- his wife decorates their mansion for the holidays like a deluxe department store -- he's the least concerned with appearances. It's deeply worrying to him that the United States doesn't manufacture anything but complex financial instruments anymore. As he surveys an abandoned shipyard, his expression is infinitely sad.

All these are good ideas, expressed with professional craft, but so late to the game. "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Office Space" made most of the same points vividly long ago. "The Company Men" is a lovingly prepared dish served cold and stale.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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  • "The Company Men"

  • THE COMPANY MEN

    ★★ 1/2 out of four stars

    Rating: R for language and brief nudity.

    Where: Showplace Icon, Southdale.

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