The latest American film to examine the harsh economic realities of the current recession risks alienating its audience from the start. The Company Men's central character is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a high-flying executive at a shipbuilding firm, who finds himself unexpectedly out of a job when the company begins making cutbacks. Bobby and his family must face up to some serious belt-tightening and a new, more affordable way of life; but while Mrs Walker (Rosemarie DeWitt) thinks about their children and the cost of putting food on the table, her husband is more concerned with the loss of his golf club membership, the repossession of his car, and the emasculating humiliation of being "just another asshole with a résumé." And we're supposed to sympathise with this guy?
That The Company Men largely succeeds in making its characters well-rounded and worthy of our empathy is down to some perceptive writing and strong performances, and even if John Wells' movie doesn't quite have the resonance it is striving for, it's a satisfyingly thoughtful and mature drama nonetheless. The film considers what it means for men whose lives are so defined by their career and their status when all of that is taken away from them, and although we may scoff at the "humiliation" of Bobby's predicament – going for round after round of interviews and joining a job-hunting workshop – Wells and Affleck do successfully manage to make us empathise with a character who is having to adjust to a whole new way of life. Two other key players in the drama stand at a similar crossroads. Tommy Lee Jones plays Gene, one of the co-founders of the company (along with Craig T. Nelson's Salinger), who is increasingly appalled at the firm's ruthless downsizing and lack of principles, while Chris Cooper's Phil is the most tragic figure of all. He knows that the future for an unemployed man of his advancing years is a bleak one, and few actors are as perfectly suited to play a man staring into the abyss as Cooper.
The performances across the board are top-notch. As the only blue-collar, working class voice in the story, Kevin Costner's carpenter is painted as a little too good to be true (selflessly working all hours to ensure his crew gets paid), but Costner's gruff and earnest portrayal really works for the character. It's great to see this undervalued actor now finding his groove again in down-to-earth supporting roles.
It's a shame that the female characters are so short-changed. DeWitt is strong as ever playing the voice of reason, but that's about all she gets to do, while Maria Bello is wasted with a poorly defined character and an affair with Jones that I didn't buy for a minute. This unbalanced perspective harms The Company Men, but I guess the clue is in the title after all – this is a film about men at work and men out of work, and it examines its subject with intelligence and sincerity. Unfortunately, Wells doesn't seem quite sure about how to bring his film to a close, and the method he chooses falls horribly flat. The attempt to graft a happy ending onto his film is The Company Men's biggest misstep; it feels false and contrived, and it threatens to undermine all of the good work Wells and his fine cast has put in to make us care about these men. He provides his characters with a safety net, and to the unemployed masses who have no such easy way out, The Company Men will suddenly feel like a fairytale.