On “The Company Men”

The Company Men is one of the gutsiest little films to come out of Hollywood in the last year.  It opened again on Friday in limited release (but, alas, not yet in Charlottesville — maybe next week?).  I say again, because I saw it in New York in December, where I assume it was released in time for Oscar qualification.    There was only minor mention of it in the Golden Globe nominations (new director), and we’ll see on Tuesday whether it makes any Oscar lists.

Why so gutsy?  It’s about job loss, coming at a time where so many people are out of work that there is little sympathy, time, or spare cash for a movie a little too close to home.  And gutsy, because it’s not ordinary job loss, but job loss by not particularly sympathetic men (with notable exceptions), who have spent the last several decades living the good life and blindly getting super-rich at the expense of others.  It may seem difficult to feel particularly concerned at their comeuppance.  And yet we do.

About ten years ago, John Wells apparently wrote this script, his first full-length movie, about the dot.com crash, and has been letting it perc ever since.  The man can write.  He’s responsible for some of the best of TV’s The West Wing, and ER.  After many interviews with friends and strangers, the script evolved into a painfully relevant comment on our times, which he also produced and directed.

He’s assembled a first-rate ensemble cast:  Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner, Craig Nelson, and Chris Cooper, for starters.  You might well wonder how he can afford them all, and why they all agreed to be in this movie?  My guess is that they are fine actors desperate for a role with a little bit of substance in it, somewhat hard to find coming out of Hollywood these days.  They get it in this movie.  The story centers mostly around the Affleck character, a pompous ass who, in no time at all, goes from country-club-and-fancy-cars riches to klutzy cold-weather-carpenter, who has to move his family into his in-laws’ modest house.  We cheer at his downfall just as we cheer at the rebirth of his humanity.  But he shares the screen with a team of unique variations on what we might expect from them, all playing against type (although these are such versatile actors, they would deny any “type” labeling): Nelson as the über-boss of a down-sizing shipping company, who never learns, and thereby stays rich;  Tommy Lee Jones as his next in command; Cooper as the most volatile of the employees, certainly in another award-deserving performance; and Costner in a wonderfully underplayed role as a blue collar builder. It was so well done, and so un-Costner, that I almost (but not quite) forgive him his Robin Hood.

Wells and his team may lose their shirts with this film.  Affleck himself worries that it could end up being one nobody wants to see.  But that would be a huge mistake.  It is a powerful, all too universal story, with some poignantly written and acted moments of vulnerability and fear, as well as love, friendship, family and survival.  It has a great deal to say about business morality and the lack thereof, and about the power of the almighty dollar and the prototypical wink we give when we step over bodies to get it.  It rings true in a real world, in our current economy and our prospects for the future.  There’s a not-so-subtle (and maybe not so realistic) Hollywood ending, designed to make the tragedies palatable.  And it’s even got some great laughs.

I for one am hoping that it gets a sales boost on Tuesday, when nominations for this year’s Academy Awards will be announced  (8:30 a.m. EST).   Chris Cooper, one of the finest American screen actors out there, certainly deserves a supporting actor nomination.  As does Wells for his screenwriting.  Up for awards alongside the likes of The King’s Speech, The Fighter, The Social Network and … (oh, alright, maybe) The Black Swan, we movie lovers should consider ourselves lucky this year.

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