Sundance Review: THE COMPANY MEN
Subtlety is not so much a noun expressing nuance, it is a technique that film makers, both veteran and rookie, should practice regardless of the subject matter of their film. Very rarely will it work for a writer or director to play out their film feeding everything to its audience, pointing out every plot detail, never allowing the audience to sit back and digest what is occurring. Even when literal film making like this works, the film would always be better served with a bit of slyness from the director finding its way in. Unfortunately, THE COMPANY MEN is a film that is neither subtle, nor does the heavy-handed nature of what writer/director John Wells is describing ever work. It is unfortunate, because it is a film that very nearly pulls it off thanks in no small part to the amazing actors involved here.
Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a gifted and highly successful member of the corporate world. This world is shattered when, due to corporate downsizing, Bobby loses his job and is forced to begin the long and treacherous journey of moving onto the next thing. Meanwhile, other men in the company, played by Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper, begin seeing the writing on the wall that another round of layoffs is evident.
There is no question writer/director John Wells is a talented man. He has been writing, directing, and producing television for two decades. This experience helps THE COMPANY MEN in certain others, while other areas, other rooms of the film making house Wells has pieced together here, seem less than honed. The balance between the three characters is very well done. Affleck’s Bobby is definitely the central character of the film, but Jones and Cooper’s character are equally fleshed out, as well. Jones plays the co-founder of the company, and he is forced to sit back and watch as the direction of the company grows more and more unethical. Cooper plays another employee of the company, nervous that his name just might be on the list when the time comes to let more people go. These are definitely real characters, and Wells’ movement between them in the story structure is incredibly well done.
What isn’t well done is found in the nature most of the characters’ story arcs play out. Early in the film, the writing is spot on, never delving into corporate jargon that loses the audience nor allowing itself to be unnecessarily clunky for the sake of explaining aspects of the corporate world to the audience. This level of nuance is lost by the time the last half of the film kicks in, and it become “This is what is going on. This is why that is happening. Let’s retell that to you just so we know you got it.” The level of heavy handedness at work here is staggering, and what should be viewed as a realistic and timely piece about our current, economic state suddenly feels disconnected from the world. There are moments near the end that I won’t even describe, but they utilize typical, Hollywood script babble that flings a failed attempt at winning over the audience’s optimism. It doesn’t. It’s just “aw shucks” head-scratching.
Of course, what sells this film is not going to be the screenwriting nor the direction and look of the film (Roger Deakins once again blows the cinematography competition away). The actors and their faces and names on the marketing campaign for THE COMPANY MEN is what is really going to sell it to the masses. Fortunately, everyone delivers. Affleck and Cooper give absolutely superb performances, even if Cooper’s character seems a bit one-note. Jones, on the other hand, knocks this performance out of the park. He brings the absolutely fallible character to life with his gruff charm and intense delivery. You sense the kinship between he and the other actors, and, in any given scene, the balance of character never seems swayed. Much of this is due to Wells’ writing, but you get the sense Jones’ command of the scene is hard at work here, as well. With the right handling, this could lead him to another slew of awards.
THE COMPANY MEN is far from a perfect movie. All the outstanding acting and staggering beauty of Deakins’ shots can’t push through the muck of the writing at work here. The disconnect Wells’ creates in the hokey and trite development of his characters hurts THE COMPANY MEN immensely. With some reworking of the script, the film could have been a masterful work of relevant horror to both the working and the corporate class of America. Unfortunately, that disconnect makes THE COMPANY MEN feel like exactly what it is, a movie.