All of a half dozen people turned out to see The Company Men the other night at the local theater. The film has been hammered by critics and hasn’t yet grossed $4 million. However, the film, with a production budget of $15 million, and plenty of star power with Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones, has a story that is much better than the critics appreciate.
Not many movie critics can relate to a character that went to the right school and earned an MBA because that is supposed to guarantee career success. None of them played the corporate game well enough to become regional sales manager at 37 and make a buck twenty a year plus bonus, have a Porsche, a big house, country club membership, a boy, a girl, and size zero wife, Patriots season tickets, and all the associated debt and obligations that go with it.
So when Bobby (Affleck) strolls into the boardroom, proudly announcing to his sales staff that he shot 44 on the front and 42 on the back that morning, but then in the next minute is called into human resources and canned, with GTX (the fictional conglomerate) only paying 12 weeks salary plus out placement services, he’s stunned.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief then proceed. Denial: Bobby thinks he’ll get a job right away. No reason for belt tightening. Anger: Bobby believes the company screwed him after 13 years of loyal service and division head Gene McClary (Jones) betrayed him. Bargaining: OK, Bobby resigns himself to cutting back on expenses and he goes to work for the smug brother-in-law he hates (Costner), humping plywood and buckets of mortar up multiple flights of stairs each day. Depression: Bobby losses interest in the bedroom and tells his wife he’s sorry he let her down. Acceptance: Bobby and wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) spend more time with each other and the kids, while Bobby starts to actually enjoy his construction job.
In the meantime, close to sixty year-old Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is fired as GTX continues to further downsize. Woodward started out as a riveter in the ship yard and had worked his way up to senior management. The company was everything to him. His wife suffers from migraines and is not really part of his life, while his daughter is still in college with hefty tuition payments required to keep her there.
Phil is a man who is used to a certain amount of reverence. A legend at GTX, Paul’s now just another old, out of shape, executive with few job skills, a bad attitude, and a salary requirement that’s too high.
Gene McClary is “boxed” the same day as his old friend Phil. McClary was too candid with stock analysts about how bad company prospects were and cared too much about his employees. He shoots from the hip, says what’s on his mind and head man James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) tires of it.
Gene’s company stock will keep him from missing any meals. However, upon being sacked, he leaves his free-spending society wife to move in with the HR axe woman Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) he had been having an affair with. That relationship quickly dies as Gene mopes around with nothing to do except drink away his depression.
A telling scene has Cynthia McClary (Patricia Kalember) casually asking her husband if she and her girlfriends can take the corporate jet to go shopping and play some golf out of town, at a time when the company was laying off thousands of employees. Upon receiving a withering look from Gene, she curtly responds, “I guess we’ll have to fly commercial.”
Many who have written about this movie believe the ending to be implausible and contrived. Actually it’s not at all. When businesses downsize, assets are sold but don’t go away. People are fired, but they re-emerge, often in the same line of business. Entrepreneurs re-start their lives and new ventures often hiring people they know and trust, their old employees.
The critics complain that The Company Men is no Up In the Air. It’s not. It’s actually a more realistic look at how men (in this case) cope with job loss; which is more than losing a paycheck, it’s losing an identity, a daily purpose, and the splintering of a work family that in some cases can be every bit as tight knit as family at home.