MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest Forrest@moviecitynews.com

Frenzy on the Wall: Downsized and Dispirited, The Company Men Still Has Feeling

The Company Men is a satisfying film, but not an altogether successful one. However, I’m inclined to give it a pass for a lot of its faults because its cause is such a noble one. The film will serve as a time-capsule for future generations to be able to look back and pinpoint this particular time in our nation’s history, a time when we were all so terrified about the economy, when stock prices mattered more than employing people, and when lay-offs became more and more common.

I have a lot of friends who were laid off and fired in the past two years and I watched as they struggled to re-gain employment. We were told all throughout high school, college, and graduate school that these degrees mattered. But, when you’re competing for a job against hundreds of other applicants who all have great resumes and went to good schools, it becomes harder to set yourself apart.

When the recession hit, a lot of the first people to go were the recently hired and many of my friends wondered if they were ever going to get another job. But it was doubly worse for those who actually had families to support and mortgage payments due, who were now unemployed in their thirties and forties and going to job interviews up against applicants who were younger, cheaper, and hungrier.

Essentially, that is what The Company Men is about: when you get comfortable in a job and used to a certain lifestyle, it’s difficult to get back out there into the real world. The peripheral issue in the film, however, is probably the most important one: we now live in a country that doesn’t make things anymore, and that is a devastating blow to not just the laborers, but to the junior executives and vice presidents. I suppose the big theme at work in The Company Men is “everything is relative.” Just because the main characters in this film drives Porsches and live in nice houses, that doesn’t make their struggles any less real. When your kid is used to getting an XBox and you can’t give your kid what they want, it’s not a pleasant feeling no matter how much money you once made. Unemployment in a recession is the great equalizer.

Granted, this film is not exactly The Grapes of Wrath and we aren’t living through the Great Depression. But I felt the pain of these characters nonetheless. Where the film struggles, however, is in pushing the plot forward in a way that sustains momentum. Losing a job is a climactic moment in someone’s life, and we get that moment in the first fifteen minutes of the film and then watch as Ben Affleck’s sales manager flounders and struggles for the rest of the film, trying to get back to where he started out.

What we know – and his character ultimately learns – is that there’s no getting back to where you were, there’s only getting stable.

The film follows three men of different ages and in different classes of wealth, although they are all wealthy. Ben Affleck is the main character and the youngest, a man who is very content with his lifestyle of golfing and hobnobbing with other men of his ilk who is thrown for a loop by his firing during his company’s downsizing; lucky for him, his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) is ultra-supportive and pragmatic. Chris Cooper is the next level up from Affleck’s character and he spends the first half of the film terrified that he might be the next to go, completely unprepared for retirement even though he’s approaching sixty.

And there’s Tommy Lee Jones as the second-in-command to the CEO (Craig T. Nelson), who happens to be his best friend. He’s set for life, but is unhappy in his marriage to a wife who seems to want nothing but objects from him instead of affection. His job appears safe, but he doesn’t like what’s happening to the company he helped to build, and feels the downsizings are highly unethical. Kevin Costner plays Affleck’s blue-collar contractor brother-in-law, who consistently makes fun of Affleck’s “easy” job that doesn’t take any real hard work.

I’m willing to bet, based on what I’ve recapped, that you could probably figure out the basic arc of the film. I’m not saying it’s a completely terrible thing for a film to be predictable, because it does make it satisfying in a way to see things unfold in the way I expected. However, it seemed a little bit too paint by numbers. The way Costner’s character repeatedly talks about hard labor and the way Affleck brushes him off for the first half of the film is obvious foreshadowing for what is to come. It also doesn’t help that Affleck has kind of done this character arc before in Jersey Girl.

Cooper’s character could have the most interesting arc, but he’s not given enough screen time or back story to really make us invested in what happens with him. And Tommy Lee Jones, who is having an affair with Maria Bello’s downsizer character, is exactly the character we expect him to be from the very beginning, with not enough to make him stand out besides the fact that he’s, well, Tommy Lee Jones.

But as predictable and manipulative as the film was, there were moments that really rang true. The scenes where Affleck is fed up and disgusted by his begging and pleading work extremely well, as do all of the scenes between him and DeWitt. DeWitt is especially excellent in the film, making the supporting wife/mother character into the glue of the family. I wish more time was spent focusing on her plight, how she manages to keep everything together and put on a happy face while watching her husband lose his libido and his sense of humor and his pride.

The untold story is really the story of the spouse who has to try and keep everything in check, to be pragmatic, while their significant other tries to pick up the pieces of their work life. As much as I enjoyed certain scenes with Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper, I really would have preferred if the film stayed focused on Affleck and DeWitt and their family.

Between this and The Town, I’m reminded of how terrific Affleck can be. The beginning of the film puts Affleck squarely in Changing Lanes territory, which is one of his finest performances, and made me think of how great he is when he’s in the corporate world.

SPOILER ALERT

Then, by the end of the film, when he’s wearing a tool belt, I was reminded of The Town and Good Will Hunting and thought, “wow, he’s really great as a construction worker.”

END SPOILER

Affleck’s got much more range than a lot of people give him credit for and I think it’s great that’s not trying so hard to be a “movie star” any longer.

John Wells, longtime producer of television and movies, makes his feature writing and directorial debut with this picture and I think it’s a mildly auspicious one. It shows me that he has a knack for the interplay between characters. I think he was aided a great deal by Roger Deakins’ fantastic camera work, but he seems to have a real feel for emotional turmoil in the face of stress.

I think the film needed momentum, as it seemed like it was flailing for most of its running time, but I appreciated the fact that wasn’t any big showy moment where everything is happy or sad or angry. There is no lame blowup between spouses, nor is there a big moment of catharsis; the mood and tone felt like real life and I think that’s what will make Wells a successful filmmaker.

Look, The Company Men is not a great film, but it’s one that is worth seeing because it is a portrait of America right now. I don’t know how this film will hold up in the future – except as a reminder of where we were – but right now, it works because it hits the right emotional keys. It says the things that we all believe and it exposes some of the problems we have. I admired the intent of The Company Men and sometimes that’s good enough.

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Frenzy On Column

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin