Film Review: The Company Men

Layoffs devastate executives of a Boston-based conglomerate in a well-meaning but inert message drama from writer-director John Wells.

TV powerhouse John Wells makes his feature film debut with The Company Men, a message drama long on self-pity and short on plot. Ripped from 2008's headlines, the film is a sympathetic but predictable account of business executives coping poorly with massive layoffs during an economic downturn. Good intentions and a surprisingly powerful cast won't be enough to lure audiences.

Centered around GTX, a fictional Boston shipbuilding company that has evolved into a transportation conglomerate, the story follows several workers and their families during a period of downsizing. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a hotshot salesman, reacts badly to his pink slip. Alternately ashamed and in denial, he rejects offers of help from his wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her family. Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) started out on the factory floor, and has been a faithful company employee for decades. Now out of work, he has to find a way to support his clinically depressed wife and college-age daughter. Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), one of the founders of GTX, not only can't protect his employees, but becomes a victim of the economy himself.

CEO and token villain James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) blames the firings on shareholders who want higher stock returns, but the film is frustratingly vague about what is actually happening to GTX. It's easy to pin the company's problems on corporate greed, harder to explain why McClary and his workers are so blind to their fates. A glance at any Wall Street Journal should have tipped them off about the long-term potential for heavy manufacturing.

As a writer, Wells masters the ins and outs of the corporate world as easily as he captures the nuances of suburban life. The business meetings and working lunches ring just as true as the characters' expensive homes and country clubs. But surface details aside, the actual storylines aren't very original or incisive. Up in the Air showed just how good its characters were at their jobs, and with style and humor. Here we just see gloomy workers failing at everything: not just their jobs, but their lives and families as well. The lead characters are so distinctly unlikeable and weak that the performers can't do much with their roles, no matter how carefully they act.

Wells played a key part in series like “The West Wing” and “ER,” in the process helping redefine television drama. But feature film technique seems to have baffled him. The Company Men has a drab, claustrophobic feel. Characters talk at length without saying enough. No matter what the location, camera set-ups seem limited to static two-shots and portentous close-ups.

The biggest flaw with The Company Men may be its misplaced priorities. It's hard to get upset when an overpaid drone has to give up his Porsche, just as it's tough to get worked up over a millionaire's empty marriage. Shouldn't we be more worried about the thousands of fired workers mentioned in the film who don't have stock options and outplacement services? And don't viewers deserve more than half-baked bromides about corporate responsibility?