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Sundance Review: The Company Men

By  · Published on January 25th, 2010

I’ve already heard several folks here in Park City draw lines between John Wells’ recession drama The Company Men and Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air. I suppose this is exactly the kind of parallels that a future distributor would want drawn, as Up in the Air was a very successful film. It may even win some awards on Oscar night (probably not, but maybe). But in truth, The Company Men is nothing like Up in the Air, other than the central theme of people being fired. That is not to say however, that its a bad thing.

Wells – who is a very accomplished television producer (shows such as The West Wing, ER and Southland) – begins his work as a feature film director with the story of three men who are struck in the chest by the economic downturn. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is a hotshot sales executive at a large transportation conglomorate who is downsized, and must find a way to support his wife (Rosemarie Dewitt) and family. Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is a long-term exec at the same company whose greatest fears are realized when he is fired after being promised by his close friend and boss Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). Little does he know at the time that McClary’s fate isn’t all that different.

The film’s first act begins with the bloodbath of terminations at the hands of the company’s seemingly ruthless CEO (Craig T. Nelson) and HR rep Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello). And from here, it is all about how the three men struggle with the question of what’s next. It can instantly be seen as a more somber, in some ways melodramatic look at the struggle of prideful men who are cut from their comfortable, powerful existences in the corporate world.

It is a film that demands performances worthy of the gravity of the situation. And it gets just that. Ben Affleck continues to take on smart, mature and subdued roles. Perhaps his move to directing has helped him see himself differently, thus allowing for him to take on more dramatic roles. He’s the cocky executive, but not exactly the character we’ve seen before (as in Boiler Room). He shows Bobby to be a responsible, if conflicted family man, and has great rapport with his co-stars, especially a very Bostonian Kevin Costner, who plays his blue collar brother in law.

As is always the case, the performances of Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper are great. They hold the weight of the film on their shoulders and deliver performances that are dynamic and compelling.

As I mentioned, this is a much different take on the economic situation than we’ve seen before – and perhaps a more traditional approach. It isn’t very funny, and doesn’t have anything that could be likened to a “light” tone. It’s heavy, but it also succeeds as an examination of the isolation that comes with the loss of a job. The humiliation, fear, anger and tragic journey back to normal that too many of our family, friends and neighbors have had to face in this day and age. It’s an often-powerful film, driven by performance and Wells’ keen eye for the little visual nuances that surround these men. We are often caught looking at expensive toys or appliances around their house, as reminders of the things that they unwillingly give up when disaster strikes. It all adds to the overall experience, which is one that is exhausting and compelling.

The question I have is this: do we really want to watch such a grounded, depressing film about a situation that hits so close to home? The answer seems all too obvious, and presents a major problem for any distributor. Ten years down the line, this could serve as one of the better examinations of this situation. But right now, it is heartbreaking.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)