The Company Men

It is, as David Mamet reminds us, perhaps the worst of all possible epithets. Witness salesman Al Pacino to office manager Kevin Spacey in “Glengarry Glen Ross”:

What you’re hired for is to help us. Does that seem clear to you? To help us. Not to fuck us up. To help men who are going out there to try to earn a living. You fairy. You company man!”

Apparently even the predatory chest-thumping homophobic solipsist has his first principles. Even he knows enough to at least pretend that comradeship with his fellow worker matters more than saving face with management. The company man, on the other hand, can not be redeemed, for it is he who bears so much responsibility for the corrosion of the American Dream.

Maybe so. But is he at all pitiable? That’s an open question in writer-director John Wells’ “The Company Men,” which uses the dramatic feature film as field notes toward an anthropology of corporate downsizing. Wells’ solemn study seems timelier now than Mamet’s play-cum-film was in the early 1990s, so it’s too bad that the former is also less vicious, less essential.

For decades, Wells has held court as an executive producer in American television, presiding over “ER,” “Third Watch” and “The West Wing,” among other standouts in the endless march of prime-time soaps. Now he’s finally traded up to the big screen, harnessing plenty of scale-appropriate star power with Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones. And his movie feels like a strong, solidly credentialed TV show.

Well, this market being what it is, it’s not always enough for a man to coast on his credentials. Or so Wells’ suddenly redundant industrialists learn when the Great Recession comes to their Boston-based multinational transportation conglomerate. Bobby (Affleck), the hotshot, has a big house and a big head. He golfs, and gloats, and guns the engine in his Porsche. He can’t even admit that he’s lost his job, let alone accept another one from his resentful blue-collar brother-in-law (Costner), a lowly carpenter. (Jesus reference aside, that’s a clever touch: salt of the earth as salt in the wound.) Phil (Cooper) is the seasoned executive who came by his high status honestly, by working his way up from the bottom rung. Now his reward for making the company his life is to lose it. Gene (Jones), a co-founder, has sense enough to give his wife a withering look when she asks to borrow one of the corporate jets for a shopping trip to Palm Springs. Less sensibly, perhaps, he has his HR executioner (Maria Bello) for a mistress; eventually she fires him too.

As Wells bounces around among his characters and describes their crumbling complacency, we can feel the contaminating radiation of economic implosion. All the poor little rich boys! But the ensemble approach is self-diluting, too. It becomes clear that Wells is better at gradual portraiture than dramaturgy, and because “The Company Men” is a film and not a TV show, it reads as a gathering of good performances in search of a deeper meaning. One virtue of the season-long episodic structure — whether taken in by old-fashioned appointment viewing or by a binge on DVDs — is the loose freedom of casually checking in on multiple characters, of feeling our lives moving along as theirs do (even if only in circles), without the urgency to wrap things up within a couple of captive hours. The great films can make those captive hours seem like whole lifetimes, of course, but they depend on a metabolism that Wells has yet to master.

And so he corners himself into a a contrived denouement: the swell of anthemic music as shorthand for optimism, and the unconvincing call to scale down our priorities, take a deep breath, do a quick bootstrap tug and just get back to work. Where’s the coruscating rage of Mametism when we need it most?

Still, and not just from the polished gloom of Roger Deakins’ darkly glinting cinematography, the men of “The Company Men” do give off a certain shine. Their familiar and presumably pitiable woe is not entirely cathartic, but it is at least as watchable as a collective cringe-worthy life crisis can be. For so depressingly realistic a look at our headline-hogging national distress, it is quite paradoxically diverting.

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