Friday 11 March 2011

White collar blues: "The Company Men"

The Company Men finds John Wells, late of TV's e.r. and The West Wing, attempting a white-collar drama no doubt greenlit in the wake of Up in the Air's critical and commercial success: if you thought the Clooney movie contained too much lovey-dovey stuff, and not enough discussion of stock prices or lingering shots of gleaming German-design kitchens, you're exactly the person it's aiming at. Wells's aim is to show the ripple effects created by the downsizing of a Boston shipbuilding company in September 2008. It's junior executive Ben Affleck who feels the crunch most instantly; laid off in the first round of staff cuts, he's obliged to report to a bullpen as part of his severance package, to reapply for other white-collar jobs against suddenly increased competition. Senior exec Chris Cooper can barely contain his rage, threatening to take an AK-47 to the company's HQ, while a power struggle opens behind the scenes between vice-president Tommy Lee Jones, struck with grave ethical doubts about the lay-offs, and CEO Craig T. Nelson - Jones's supposed best friend - whose chief concern is with stabilising the firm's jittery share price.

The film displays many of the virtues of Wells' blue-chip small-screen work, not least an awareness of the ironies of this situation: that erstwhile high-fliers were, almost overnight, reduced to playing ball in public parks in the afternoon, swigging from bottles hidden in brown-paper bags, like common-or-garden winos. The acting is of a similar high calibre. Affleck, continuing his recent creative renaissance, is the standout, summoning up a badly wounded macho pride for a character trying to bluff the situation out, in the vain hope he's anything other than "just another asshole with a resume". Kevin Costner establishes himself as the Springsteen of American acting as Affleck's brother-in-law, a labourer who's doing rather better for himself than anybody else around him, and isn't half smug about it. And it's always good to have Jones's spiky intelligence - that weight of thought behind each line spoken - back on our screens; once again employed as the voice of troubled experience, his pronunciation of certain words ("gone", "congratulations") is key to what the film grasps and understands, feels comfortable discussing.

Yet The Company Men is conceived as trickledown drama, and - like trickledown economics - you could call it bullshit, or simply note that it only goes so far. There is a curious absence at the film's heart, one only addressed 80 minutes into a 100-minute movie, and then only implicitly, with a handful of desolately atmospheric Roger Deakins shots of an abandoned shipyard: the fate of those nuts-and-bolts workers who, presumably, had far less of a financial margin to operate within in the first place. (As far as the Nelsons of this world go, Jones points out: "You can always sell the Degas.") The scene in which Affleck realises, with dawning horror, that he'll have to accept half his salary expectations to get back in the game, while excellently written and played, is typical of the evasion: the implication is how terrible it must be to settle for $65,000 a year, when there are several strata of society where that figure must presently feel unattainable.

Featuring the very able support of Rosemarie DeWitt as a wifely representative of the worth of a world outside the office, the Affleck strand is the one to which Wells gives most prominence, venturing that this is the real tragedy of America's financial meltdown. But it isn't, really, which is why the film has to contrive phony sympathies for the character - flying him all the way to Chicago for an interview, only to find he's got the dates mixed up (surely you'd have confirmed over the phone?) - and nudges him towards a rather simplistic redemption involving a romanticised vision of good, honest manual labour.

It strikes me that if we are going to subscribe to economic Darwinism, we are going to have to accept that it becomes every man for himself out there, and accept no special pleading on behalf of certain groups (certain almost exclusively white male groups, natch) who may previously have had it all. Wells here throws in his lot with the concerns of the few over the many, taking the side of the top two percenters (in Republican tax parlance), those whom the meltdown obliged to move into a smaller home (rather than those who were turfed out on the street), those who used the crisis as an opportunity to set up their own business with their own private income (rather than those forced to sign on just to get by). As commendably adult and topical (and watchable) as The Company Men may be, it becomes an incomplete and faintly dishonest-seeming work because of it: a film that may provide cold comfort for the boys at Wells's country club, perhaps, but offers comparatively little for anyone scraping together nickels and dimes for popcorn.

The Company Men opens in selected cinemas from today.

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