Saturday, July 2, 2011

Catch-up time: John Wells' under-seen THE COMPANY MEN proves one of year's best

Like far too many other Americans, TrustMovies didn't catch THE COMPANY MEN when the film opened theatrically at the beginning of this year. (It actually opened last year, briefly, in an "Oscar"-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles but was shut out entirely at awards time.) The economic downturn was -- still is -- going strong, and supposedly, America did not want to be further reminded of this when it went off to the movies for its feel-good fix. Oddly enough, while the film does deal with the huge spike in unemployment that arrived with and after the Wall Street/bank/real estate debacle, The Company Men proves to be a feel-good movie, after all -- but one strewn with job loss, depression, anger, even death.

Writer/director John Wells, at left,who comes by way of producing, mostly for television, does a number of smart things in his film, and the smartest is leaving out the villain role. Craig Nelson, below, as the head of the company, comes closest, by virtue of being the wealthiest and making the decision to downsize enormously. Yet even he is shown to be a hostage to Wall Street and his shareholders. The rest of the stellar and well-used cast are all heroes, of a sort. They take their falls, continuing to strive until they no longer can, and they bounce back -- or not. They're angry, short-tempered, self-pitying and very, very human.

Chief among them, and probably hardest to like, is Bob Walker (Ben Affleck, at right), the smart, smug sun in the sales-and-marketing galaxy. He doesn't take easily to his new role as the unemployed and so makes life hell for those around him, whether at home or on a job interview. Affleck is excellent, as he has been of late, never playing for easy charm or tears. Consequently his slow education is also ours. As his wife, the wonderful Rosemarie DeWitt (at far right, from Rachel Getting Married and Afterschool) is equally effective as the spouse who has to keep applying the brakes, spending-wise. Frugal wives of spendthrift husbands (who use the excuse of "keeping up appearances" ) will identify heavily with this film, I suspect.

Kevin Costner (at left), who has also been very good of late, even in films that were not, plays Bob Walker's construction-worker brother-in-law, who ends up his boss for a time. The filmmaker and his actors capture well the breach between white and blue collar, as well as the ways in which families can, with some extra effort, broach that breach.

Best of all is Tommy Lee Jones, below, as the "good guy" of the company's top management who, even so, can't help staunch the bloodflow. As Gene McClary, Jones brings his ocean-deep reservoir of strength and decency to the proceedings by showing us a man who's been trying to do the right thing, even as that possibility continues to edge away from him.

The most interesting role, however goes to Maria Bello, as Sally Wilcox, the company's human resources person, who also happens to be having a long-time affair with Jones. Here's a character who serves her company, even as she serves herself, and Bello makes the most of the difficult contradictions.

The saddest role? Chris Cooper's by a long shot. Playing a 60-year-old, suddenly-unemployed man with a kid in college and too many bills to pay, Cooper (center right, above) makes us feel every gray hair, wrinkle and unintentional slight that age must endure from callow, so-sure-of-itself youth.

Filmmaker Wells does make some missteps: Who is this daughter of the Walkers who is talked about and appears once, I think, but is rarely seen?  Is she from a former, un-discussed marriage? Her brother (Bob Walker's son) gets plenty of screen time, but not his sister. Well, he will of course grow up to become one of those company men, whereas she will merely be a wife of one of them. Still, Mr.Wells has given us an even better movie about our current unemployment crisis that was 2009's Up in the Air. This is film for progressives to see and cherish, and I hope they will. Making its DVD debut last month, via Anchor Bay Films and The Weinstein Company, the movie is available now for rental or sale.

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