MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

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.


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.”


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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“I always thought that once I had lived in Chicago for a while, it would be interesting to do a portrait of the city – but to do it at a significant time. Figuring out when would be the ideal time to do that was the trick. So when this election came around, coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, it seemed like the ideal time to do the story. Having lived in Chicagoland for thirty-five-plus years and done a number of films here, I’ve always been struck by the vibrancy of the city and its toughness. Its tenderness too. I’ve always been interested in the people at the center of all the stories. This is a different film in that regard, because we’re not following a couple of individuals over the course of the project in the way that a lot of the films I’ve done have, but I still feel like people’s voices and aspirations and hopes are at the center of this series.

It wasn’t easy. We started back in July 2018, it was actually on the Fourth of July – that was our first shoot. It’s like most documentaries in that the further you go along the more involved and obsessed you get, and you just start shooting more and more and more. We threw ourselves into this crazy year in Chicago. We got up every day and tried to figure out if we should be out shooting or not, and what it is we should shoot. We were trying to balance following this massive political story of the mayor’s race and these significant moments like the Laquan McDonald trial with taking the pulse of people in the city that we encounter along the way and getting a sense of their lives and what it means to live here. By election day, Zak Piper, our producer, had something like six cameras out in the field. You could double-check that, it might have been seven. We had this organized team effort to hit all the candidates as they were voting, if they hadn’t already voted. We hit tons of polling places, were at the Board of Elections and then were at the parties for the candidates that we had been able to follow closely. Then of course, we were trying to make sure we were at the parties of the candidates who made it to the runoff. So, yeah, it was kind of a monster.”
~ Steve James On City So Real

“I really want to see The Irishman. I’ve heard it’s big brother Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. But I really can’t find the time. The promotion schedule is so tight, there’s no opportunity to see a three and a half-hour movie. But I really want to see it. In 2017, right before Okja’s New York premiere, I had the chance to go to Scorsese’s office, which is in the DGA building. There’s a lovely screening room there, too, with film prints that he’s collected. I talked to him for about an hour. There’s no movie he hasn’t seen, even Korean films. We talked about what he’s seen and his past work. It was a glorious day. I’ve loved his work since I was in college. Who doesn’t? Anyone involved with movies must feel the same way.”
~ Bong Joon-ho