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The Company Men

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A still from 'The Company Men'
A bunch of white collar number-crunchers mightn't be the obvious focus for sympathy in these recessionary times, but a fine cast led by Ben Affleck reveal a primal sense of vulnerability once stripped of the corporate façade. What's more frustrating is that writer-director John Wells (perhaps still best known as the creator of ER) is pitching for sympathy in the first place. There are probably greater insights he could offer about the plight of the redundant and well-educated, but instead, this plays like a run-of-the-mill, cog-driven sob story, reliant on the charm of its actors.

When we first set eyes on Affleck, as marketing man Bobby Walker, he is looking at himself in the mirror, fixing his tie and taking pride in what the suit means to him. He's a cocksure type of guy and Affleck certainly knows how to play that, breezing into the office and playfully teasing his colleagues in a way that reasserts his superiority. Only, they aren't laughing on this particular morning. GTX, the company of former ship builders, is downsizing and that means redundancies. Bobby is the first to go and he takes it badly, living down to the image of a spoilt child.

So begins an unfortunate and humiliating series of events, but much of the indignity he brings on himself, after days spent squashed in a cubicle at the unemployment office, applying for jobs he never gets. He leaves foul-mouthed messages for GTX's hard-nosed HR exec Sally Wilcox (a clamp-jawed Maria Bello), hurls fatist abuse at a woman who dares to eat lunch while interviewing him, and pours scorn on wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) when she suggests that he labour on building sites for her big brother Jack (a slyly grinning Kevin Costner). And of course, there's the part where he must sell his beloved Porsche. Finally, working for Jack is the only option.

The mean-spirited may be gratified by the sight of this corporate whiz-kid putting up drywall (badly), but the petulant outbursts leading up to this moment are sensitively played by Affleck; tapping into the insecurities that any man (or woman, but especially a man) would feel with a young family to support. It's also credit to Wells's writing that Bobby's degradation comes across more powerfully than the clever insults he spouts. Like a very toned down version of Michael Douglas in Falling Down (1993), Bobby looks smaller the bigger his rage becomes. The constant knocks to his confidence do become monotonous though, until the point he swallows his pride.

Affleck also has the support of first-rate actors, astutely cast by Wells for their innate masculinity and dominant presence. The bigger they are, it seems, the harder they fall. Tommy Lee Jones is especially good, quietly outraged by the cost-cutting measures as right-hand man to Craig T Nelson's casually ruthless CEO. His posture becomes ever more stooped as he carries the weight of yet more redundancies. Playing another of the casualties, Chris Cooper evokes Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross; old and forgotten, reduced to dying his hair and begging for work. There are some witty observations, but these, along with the use of natural light, have the effect of bringing a bad situation into starker perspective. Times are hard, but then we knew that already. What we're offered here is just plain confirmation.


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