You know that feeling you got during the downsizing sequences in Up in the Air the dread, empathy, and outrage mixed with the chilling sensation that anyone could be next, including you? That's the feeling that extends to every minute of The Company Men, a shrewd, timely, and terrifically engrossing drama of white-collar reckoning that marks the feature directorial debut of writer-producer John Wells (ER). The movie is about the executives who pigged out on the capitalist gravy train the men swimming in stock options 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 film. The Company Men is all too aware that the smugly gilded corporate elites it depicts are, in fact, the very sort of self-invested, short-term-profit players who helped get this country into such trouble in the first place. As they watch their jobs disappear, we behold their suddenly fraught lives with a mixture of sympathy and schadenfreude. The message might be: Greedy, scum-sucking corporate parasites are people too.
The Company Men traces the tumbling fortunes of GTX, a Boston conglomerate that grew out of a shipbuilding company and now finds that it has to consolidate and lay off hundreds of employees to please its shareholders. The first one to get the bad news is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a sales executive who has been living the plush suburban dream. This is one of those roles tailor-made for Affleck's fast-break charm, his ability to play a ''winner'' cruising at too high an altitude.
Chris Cooper, exuding the weary toughness of an old mule, is the veteran exec who gets the ax 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, offers eloquent testimony to the manufacturing-based America that globalization helped to wither away, and Kevin Costner, as Bobby's carpenter brother-in-law, does the finest character acting of his career. The dialogue pings, and often stings. Yet The Company Men invites our compassion toward the men who glided along on a house-of-cards economy until it fell in on them, too. A