Previous movies about the country's recent economic recession, such as "Up in the Air" and the documentary "Inside Job," have championed the regular folks who got shafted and heaped due scorn on the corporate moguls who benefited nonetheless.
"The Company Men" asks us to feel some sympathy for the guys on top — the executives who've luxuriated in Porsches and private jets and $500 lunches, and are suffering the pain of having all those goodies taken away. It's a tough request from John Wells, the man behind "ER" and "The West Wing," here making his feature writing and directing debut.
The strength of the all-star cast — Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Costner — makes "The Company Men" vaguely engaging, but even watching these veterans and heavyweights banter and bounce off each other can't convince us that the characters themselves are compelling.
It's not that being privileged makes them boring; being two-dimensional does. Despite the massive life changes thrust upon the film's central figures, their arcs still feel predictable. That is, except for one who has a subplot that comes out of nowhere and feels as if its context were left on the cutting-room floor. That's all we'll say.
"The Company Men" focuses on three men, specifically, hit by downsizing at a Boston-area manufacturing conglomerate. Affleck's Bobby Walker is the first to go. He had it all with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and two kids — beautiful house, shiny sports car, great golf game — so he's not terribly thrilled about the prospect of having it all taken away. He's actually in denial for a while about being laid off, insisting on keeping the country club membership even when paying the mortgage becomes difficult. Bobby is, in a nutshell, an arrogant jerk — and Affleck certainly knows how to play that sort of character believably. But he's so off-putting from the very start, it makes it tough to care about his potential redemption.
Next up is Cooper's Phil Woodward, who's pushing 60 with no real prospects. The career counselor who's been assigned to him advises him to dye his hair and omit his Vietnam War service from his resume, along with any work experience from the 1990s. He doesn't exactly respond well, to put it mildly. This all could have felt relevant and insightful — especially in the hands of an actor so capable of both subtlety and volatile rage — but "The Company Men" reduces him to a bit of a cliche. Phil gets drunk by himself in the middle of the day and literally throws rocks at the corporate headquarters from the parking lot. Literally.
Finally, there's Jones' Gene McClary, the no-nonsense right-hand man and longtime friend of the CEO (Craig T. Nelson), whose primary instinct is to cut jobs in hopes of bolstering the shareholders' confidence. Gene, by contrast, is old-school and longs for the days when he and his pal first created the shipbuilding company, when men made things they could see and be proud of, when everyone felt like family. Jones is in his agreeably cantankerous straight-talker mode, but he's also the most ostentatiously wealthy of the three "Company Men." So when he comes home to his palatial estate and finds that his pretentious socialite wife has purchased a $16,000 antique table to place in front of a window, well, it kind of makes you cringe a bit.
Finally, there's Costner, who's amusing as Bobby's brother-in-law, Jack, a salt-of-the-earth guy who's still managing to get by with his construction business. He offers Bobby a job hanging drywall — which, of course, Bobby initially rejects as being beneath him — but eventually Jack will come to function as the film's moral compass and savior. "The Company Men" seems to overlook the fact that homebuilding suffered during the recession, too. But it does give Costner a chance to trot out his old New England accent from "Thirteen Days.