Sunday 24 September 2017

Movies: The Company Men ***

(15A, general release)

Paul Whitington

In its opening scenes, The Company Men shapes up like one of those high-quality, accessible and smartly scripted American dramas that attract awards like magnets. Directed by first-timer John Wells, the film's theme -- corporate America's indifference to the little people -- is not dissimilar to Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, but for its first half-hour or so The Company Men threatens to be harder hitting.

Ben Affleck is Bobby Walker, a rather cocky executive at a Boston shipping company called GTX with a loving wife called Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), two kids, a six-figure salary and a vast McMansion. Bobby drives a Porsche and plays golf at a fancy club.

Life is good, in other words, but it's 2008, and on Wall Street the guano is about to hit the fan. Bobby sashays into work one fine morning only to be told he's surplus to requirements. He's given the boot and so is an older, more vulnerable executive called Phil (Chris Cooper).

Given nine weeks' pay and a spot at an outplacement agency where they're subjected to humiliating pep talks, the two men struggle to cope with their diminished circumstances and the fact that they can no longer define themselves by what they do. Back at GTX, their veteran boss Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) is uneasy about the layoffs.

He helped found the company with chief executive James Salinger (Craig T Nelson), but Salinger now justifies his $20m-a-year salary by pandering to shareholders.

Gene becomes convinced that Salinger ordered the lay-offs just to drive the share price up, but when he confronts his old friend, he too is given the chop.

Written and directed by Wells, The Company Men wears its theme on its sleeve: corporate America is rotten to the core, and a culture of greed has destroyed US manufacturing. Our general tendency to live beyond our means is also explored, and the dignity of manual labour is sentimentally represented by Bobby's carpenter brother-in-law, played by Kevin Costner.

All in all, The Company Men has the potential to be a heavyweight and satisfyingly complex drama. But it feels like it's been edited by committee, and very few of the sub-plots it sets up are properly explored.

What saves the film from outright incoherence is some great ensemble acting, especially from Tommy Lee Jones as a seen-it-all, world-weary executive.

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