You know that feeling you had watching the downsizing sequences in Up in the Air — the dread mixed with empathy mixed with outrage mixed with the chilling sensation that anyone could be next, including you? That’s the feeling that extends through every minute of The Company Men, a shrewd, juicy, timely, and terrifically engrossing big-cast Sundance drama that marks the feature directorial debut of John Wells (best known as the executive producer and head writer of ER). Unlike Up in the Air, however, this movie doesn’t offer a glimpse into the plight of tossed-aside middle managers. It is, rather, about the high-rolling executives who’ve pigged out on the capitalist gravy train — the men swimming in stock options and country-club memberships and $500 lunches.
Why, you may ask, should we give a damn if they lose their jobs? Have no fear: That skeptical class resentment is built right into the movie. The Company Men draws on our innate compassion for anyone in trouble, yet at the same time the movie is cannily and intimately aware that the smugly gilded corporate aristocrats it’s about are the very sorts of self-invested, short-term-profit players who helped to get this country in such trouble in the first place. As they watch their jobs disappear, we watch their suddenly traumatized lives with an arresting mixture of sympathy and Schadenfreude. The message of the movie might be: Greedy, scum-sucking executive parasites are people too.
The Company Men traces the tumbling fortunes of GTX (Global Transportation Systems), a Boston conglomerate that grew out of a ship-building company and now finds that it’s got to consolidate, close down divisions, and throw off hundreds of employees in order to have a chance of keeping its profit levels above ground in a cratering economy. The first guy to get the bad news is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a sales executive who’s been living the plush suburban dream, complete with silver Porsche, leafy picturesque home, and golfing buddies with whom he smilingly trades insider stock tips. This is one of those roles that’s tailor-made for Ben Affleck’s glib, eager, fast-break charm — his ability to play a “winner” who’s been cruising on too high an altitude and is all but waiting for a fall. Bobby receives 12 weeks severance and assumes that he’ll find another job, which is one reason he won’t let go of his perks; he’s living in a daze of denial. But he’s clever — and, after a while, desperate — enough to make excuses for that denial. “I need to look successful,” he tells his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), who’s got a much more real-world handle on the situation than he does. “I can’t just look like another a–hole with a résumé!” To which she replies: “You are another a–hole with a résumé!”
And is he ever. Wells, who fills the movie with densely up-to-the-minute cutthroat boardroom jabber, uses Bobby’s disastrous job search to create a portrait of the collapsing castle in the air that is America’s depressed and deluded corporate landscape. Bobby isn’t alone, either. Chris Cooper, exuding the weary toughness of an old mule, is a veteran executive who gets the ax as well — and discovers that, pushing 60, he might as well be applying for jobs from a retirement home. Tommy Lee Jones, as the idealistic but dried-up senior manager who thinks that none of this can happen to him, is on hand to deliver eloquent testimony to the solid, manufacturing- based America that globalization helped to wither away. Wells is a sensational writer; the dialogue pings, and often stings, especially when Affleck’s Bobby is submitting to the degradation of his increasingly low-wage job interviews. But Wells also proves an artful director in the Tony Gilroy/Jason Reitman mode of acerbic realism.
The Company Men does have its soft, homiletic side. Bobby, with the mortgage payment due, goes to work as a carpenter for his honest-prole brother-in-law, played by Kevin Costner with gruff, gone-to-seed nobility. We’re a little too aware that Bobby is opening his eyes to What Really Matters In Life. Yet for most of this superbly observed movie, Wells isn’t just crafting glorifed TV-episode lessons. He’s a real storyteller, and The Company Men, I have no trouble saying after just two days at Sundance, is destined to be one of the talked-about highlights of the festival.
More from Owen Gleiberman at Sundance 2010:
Sundance 2010 documentaries: Casino Jack and the United States of Money; Smash His Camera; Restrepo
More from EW at Sundance 2010: