Thursday, December 9, 2010

In Theaters: "The Company Men"

There’s a wonderful movie happening in Tommy Lee Jones’s eyes, a tale of man worn down by the world, who has seen it all twice and doesn’t care to see it again, who has heard all your stories and pierces through all your bravado. It is the story of a man who has been doing what he does for so long that he’s not even sure why he’s still doing it, who can barely be bothered to raise his voice anymore, since downing a big glass of scotch will get him about the same results.

Unfortunately, that wonderful movie is not The Company Men, although those are qualities that his character in it possesses. But, as has happened so very many times in this fascinating actor’s career, he’s tossing away a complicated, finely-tuned piece of work in an underdeveloped and underwhelming vehicle. Written and directed by veteran TV writer/producer John Wells, it is an insubstantial and, frankly, insincere recession-era drama that doesn’t do right by either Jones or the rest of the talented ensemble.

After a rushed, somewhat sloppy opening montage of news clips placing the narrative at the beginning of the financial meltdown, we meet Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a glib junior executive who bounces in for a day’s work bragging about his golf score with such swagger that you know he’s going up on the chopping block. His company is “consolidating divisions” and “eliminating redundancies,” so he is shown the door and spends the rest of the story trying to land a job and keep his family from the poorhouse. Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) barely escapes that round of lay-offs, but isn’t so lucky further down the road; he’s the character who ends up hitting the bottle (and there must be one). Gene McClary (Jones) started the company with CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), but his heart’s not in it anymore, and he doesn’t like what they’re turning into, putting people out to pasture like this.

That’s a strong cast (Maria Bello, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Kevin Costner fill out the major roles), but they’re undone left and right by Wells’s flat, pedestrian screenplay. Wells is usually associated with The West Wing, but let us not forget that his primary writing credits were those first four episodes after Aaron Sorkin’s departure, a quartet of shows so unabashedly terrible that they drove that series into a ditch that took it something like a year and a half to crawl out of. His dialogue here is all sign posts, utilitarian proclamations that get us from scene to scene but don’t have any vigor or flavor. The writing is obvious, clunky, pat. There’s no build or momentum to the script; in style and subject, the film will remind some of Up in the Air, but that film was (to its critics’ chagrin) about more than unemployment and the recession. The Company Men, with nothing else to hang its scenes on, becomes little more than a stream of depressing vignettes.

The actors do the best they can, and sometimes hit pay dirt. Jones is, as mentioned, terrific, and Cooper is good if underused (his role feels like a placeholder for scenes yet to be written). Affleck is enormously sympathetic—we’re manipulated into rooting for him, but we do all the same—and there’s a tender, intimate scene between him and DeWitt late in the picture that gets at something real about marriage and devotion and support.

But Bello’s role is thankless, her last scene completely perfunctory (there’s nothing more false than people announcing what their intentions were, apropos of nothing), and Wells apparently didn’t have the energy to marshal the wide array of dodgy Northeastern accents—including another prize-winner from renowned dialectician Costner—which come and go wildly from scene to scene. Wells occasionally scores a sequence that works, like Affleck’s first, failed interview, yet for every scene like that, there’s a phony, staged clanger like his curbside heart-to-heart with his son. And the pie-in-the-sky attempt at an upbeat ending is utter bullshit, particularly if you’ve glanced at a newspaper anytime in the past, oh, year.

The cinematography is by the great Roger Deakins, and several of his frames are starkly effective tableaux of solitude: Affleck with his box of desk stuff, standing in the white marble lobby, or Cooper alone among the vacated desks. It’s a great movie to look at; it’s just got nothing insightful or unexpected to say. The posters for The Company Men lift the imagery of the ads for Glengarry Glen Ross, another tale of aging businessmen in a time of desperation. The films are so far apart (in quality and impact), moviegoers should sue for false advertising.

"The Company Men" opens Friday, December 10th in limited release. 

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