Spoiler Alert: If you have not seen the movie, this review contains spoilers.
Given the continuing downward spiral of our economy, it’s worth taking another look at the movie The Company Men (2010) starring Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones, with supporting cast including Maria Bello, Kevin Costner and Chris Cooper.
I would be remiss if I did not address the title itself: the movie is not only about the company males, but also females, both in and out of the corporate spotlight, who play a substantial role in the development of events. Even though females do have an integral part of the movie and are woven into its fabric with importance and significance, the reference to “men” in the title ensures that the viewer focuses on the male characters.
The screenwriter/director, John Wells, did an excellent job of including the female characters as forces of both the events and the consequences of same. Of course, I would have written Rob Walker as Roberta Walker. The title should reflect this same intent. In 2011, the word “men” no longer suffices to mean “men and women.” We have a whole word of our own now, and it starts with a “w.”
The movie could easily and simply have been titled “The Company.” To me, that title conjures up many different connotations.
Ben Affleck plays the main character (arguably), Rob Walker, a middle manager who is unexpectedly downsized by the company hiring manager (Mario Bello as Sally Wilcox) in its attempt to cut costs and keep stock prices reasonable for its shareholders, even though the corporate fat cats (Tommy Lee Jones; Craig T. Nelson) are becoming extraordinarily wealthy while firing these same loyal employees.
Walker is fired due to a “redundancy” which is the corporate word meaning we don’t value you here anymore.
The movie is the dramatic version of the events depicted in “Fun with Dick and Jane”(2005) with Jim Carey’s Dick Harper the comedic analogy of Rob Walker. Affleck’s Walker has a wife and kids, a huge mortgage in an over-priced neighborhood and lots of perks that are now unnecessary from the perspective of sheer survival.
Walker, of course, has some of the best lines and scenes in the movie. His anger is palpable, and is created almost as another character. In one early scene, when Walker seeks a job, an overweight female interviewer offers him half of what he used to make (without bonuses) and a possible relocation to Little Rock, Arkansas from Boston. He stands up, basically tells her, in his frustration, to shove the job, but then personally insults her and tells her to “skip the diet cokes” she is drinking as they won’t help her anyway. Ouch. In my fantasy alternative version of the scene, the scene is continued when the interviewer chases him out of her office, bitch-slaps him and tackles him to the ground.
In another scene, after a long day of attempting to find a job, Walker makes a call to Wilcox. He receives her voice mail (again) on which he leaves the following message:
Thanks for not returning any of my phone calls. If you do not return my call I would love to know why you fired me without any notice you fucking cowardly bitch.
Walker’s wife, Gail, played by Suzanne Rico, is the voice of reason in an unreasonable time. Apparently she comes from working class roots as evidenced by her brother and through family get-togethers. Immediately she sees the impending financial peril and she wants to cut costs, get a full time job, put the house for sale. She tries to get Walker out of his illusions of finding employment immediately and of continuing on the path of the American Dream. When she wants him to cut down on big expenditures, he responds, “If things get really bad, I can bag groceries.” If only that wasn’t a joke.
When she suggests they sell the house and move in with his parents, Walker declares, “I choose death. I opt for death.” That never happens; he’s really not that low. She refuses to indulge in the country club costs and other luxuries that he is not willing to give up. The difference between Gail and her husband is that she realizes earlier that these amenities are a part of their former life style. Some of us are still trying to catch on to that idea.
Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Gene McClary, is the fat cat with a heart who has come from humble beginnings to help create the monster corporation – although he benefits from the downsizing, he doesn’t like it as it offends his sense of fair play and former American ethic that hard work plus loyalty plus earnest trust in corporation equals a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Employees trusted McClary to protect them and keep them safe from the monster corporation. He used to have that kind of power; but now, today, in 2010 and beyond, even he is not immune from elimination, as he is also fired toward the end of the movie by his best friend.
McClary’s wife, Cynthia, is played by Patricia Kalember, who specializes in playing cold, detached types (thirtysomething and Sisters ) or maybe she just plays characters that way. At any rate, she is symbolic of the wealthy oblivion to the forces that are crumbling the middle class and this culture – these are the people running out to buy Mary Kate and Ashley Olson’s $39,000 alligator backpack. Since the alligator is a symbol for a predator, I think the analogy is relevant. When she wants McClary to get her the corporate jet for a weekend of golf and shopping, he just snarls at her and she acquiesces to take a commercial airline instead. Now that’s slumming!
I had to ask myself this: if McClary was really being authentic, then how did he end up with Cynthia in the first place?
Maria Bello plays Sally Wilcox, the corporate hatchet person and scapegoat for Salinger and other corporate big wigs. She has the role of pink slipping those on the corporate orders, and everyone seems to hate her for it. In fact, in review of the movie, the interviewer, the hiring manager/firing manager and the corporate outsourcing people are played by women, perhaps because in life off of the screen, the patriarchal corporation relies on women to take the heat for its decisions that negatively impact others. She is having an affair with McClary (unnecessary plot development) and ends up having to fire him in an ironic twist.
Craig T. Nelson’s character, James Salinger, is analogous to Alec Baldwin’s McCallister in “Fun with Dick and Jane” – heartless, oblivious to consequences of his actions on others, happy to count his own overwhelming wealth. He has some of the most prophetic lines in the movie:
American heavy manufacturing is dead – steel, auto . . . The future’s in healthcare, infrastructure and power generation.
In some ways, Salinger could be the human incarnation of the corporation itself – no longer willing to play the daddy role of protecting his paternalistic children. No one is allowed to remain on the dole or shelf- sit without his approval. We are warned about him in Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story”(2009). He is the epitome of the economic condition of this country and the eradication of the middle class.
Chris Cooper plays Phil Woodward, the symbol of the way things used to work in corporate American when we used to believe in the American Dream. He started out in the factory, then aspired to management and bigger things. His head is on the proverbial chopping block throughout the whole movie, and at one point he says to McClary
I won’t go back to the factory floor . . . I won’t let the bastards just kick me out after 30 years. I’ll take an AK 47 to this fucking place first.
No one took him seriously, because he does get canned at the end. First, he tries to go the corporate route to their out-placement services, but the female recruiter says to him
You’re pushing 60 and you look like hell. You’re going to have a rough time out there.
She wasn’t lying. He ends up killing himself softly in his car as the engine runs in the garage.
Kevin Costner has a small role as Jack, Gail’s working-class brother. Before he realizes that Walker has been downsized, he quips at a family function, “Move any more high paying American jobs offshore to the Asians . . .? ” to which Walker responds, “Mostly folks are union busting now.” Jack does come to a partial rescue as he offers a construction job to Walker when he hears that Walker has lost his job. At first, Walker rejects the offer, but then has to capitulate when he cannot find a job in his chosen field. Perhaps this is where we are headed: family having to take care of family. It’s not a bad outcome in that sense.
While the movie has a happy- passable-somewhat-plausible ending , our economy, as yet, does not.
A good Saturday night might be to start early, grab a bottle of wine or Sleepease (or, if you are into natural remedies, valerian root), watch Capitalism: A Love Story , The Company Men, and then “Fun with Dick and Jane” in that order and take a long, deep sleep. Things will be better when we wake up in the morning. Isn’t that what our mothers told us?
I highly recommend this movie.
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