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Movie Review

The Company Men

When jobs, and entitlement, are lost: Facing cold reality in ‘Company Men’

Tommy Lee Jones (left) and Ben Affleck star as workers who get laid off from a Boston-area conglomerate. Tommy Lee Jones (left) and Ben Affleck star as workers who get laid off from a Boston-area conglomerate. (Claire Folger/ Weinstein Company)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 20, 2011

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“The Company Men’’ is about American white-collar entitlement and the abyss that opens up when it’s taken away.

Maybe you’re not sympathetic. An enormous amount of struggle and privation have come out of the economic collapse of 2008, and it may occur to you that the problems of a handful of executive VPs and mid-level sales managers don’t amount to a hill of beans, to quote the sage Rick Blaine. At its worst, “The Company Men’’ asks us to weep for people who had money to save and spent it on Porsches.

At its best, the movie understands that many of us made a similar mistake — not the Porsche (I wish) but the belief that a job, a house, comfort, and consumption were part of the natural order of things, secure guarantees of an unquestioned American way of life. “The Company Men’’ is interested in what happens when people are forced to question that way in its sudden absence.

The setting is a huge Boston-area conglomerate with roots in shipbuilding, and our main point man is that sales manager, Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck). At this point in his career, Affleck has outgrown his early smugness to the point where he can use it as a character flaw. Much of “The Company Men’’ is about Bobby’s slow, relentless humbling, and the actor plays it beautifully. Bobby can’t believe he’ll be laid off, and then he can’t believe he’ll be at the outplacement center for long, and then he can’t believe he may have to sell his house and take on construction work. And then he has to not only believe it but find a measure of acceptance in his altered horizons.

The expressions on the faces of the other characters are more panicked: They know the ax is coming but can’t believe it’ll land on them. Tommy Lee Jones plays Gene McClary, a company cofounder who took a secondary position while his best friend (Craig T. Nelson) became a captain of industry. Gene has prided himself on being the thorn in the CEO’s side, urging him to do the right thing, yet he’s still surprised when his blunt talk gets him pushed out the door. He returns to a Marblehead mansion and a wife who mean nothing to him.

The women in “The Company Men’’ either get it — a warm, believably distressed Rosemarie DeWitt as Bobby’s wife — or they don’t and are never heard from again. The movie doesn’t know what to make of those in the middle, like Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), who’s both Gene’s mistress and the human resources hatchet woman who has to fire him. “Company Men’’ is too earnest and well-intentioned to make sense of a character that conflicted, and Bello flounders attractively but to little purpose.

“Company Men’’ does need a designated victim, though, and so we have Chris Cooper, giving daring shades of neediness to the part of Phil Woodward, the third firee. The actor twists his face into an ugly mask of rejection; Phil’s job is the only thing propping him up, and without it he gives off a stink of failure that sends the other characters fleeing. Cooper’s performance suggests a nervier, nastier movie than the one we get.

The writer-director is John Wells, making his filmmaking debut after a very successful TV career (“The West Wing,’’ “ER’’). To borrow a phrase from the review my colleague isn’t writing, “The Company Men’’ is good enough to make you want to see the next episode. There’s a democratic gentleness to the storytelling that extends almost, but not quite, to Nelson’s bluff, heartless CEO. A scene where the laid-off men throw rocks at the company’s sparkling new headquarters is, in its anger and helplessness, the most honest moment in the movie.

That upwardly-directed rage might have taken “The Company Men’’ further, but Wells has the instincts and technique of a top-flight TV man, and his approach is smooth to a fault. Whether you’re in a forgiving frame of mind or not, this movie is. Still, it’s nice to see a Boston movie that’s not about criminality, that gets at the rhythms of the outer suburbs and seacoast villages, and that plays fair by the area’s class divisions. Kevin Costner taps into a new side of himself as Bobby’s blue-collar brother-in-law, and his contempt and unspoken kindness both feel real. (Realer, at least, than the Bahstan accent that sounded forced in “Thirteen Days’’ and still does here.)

Thankfully, “The Company Men’’ doesn’t lean on the local flavor. It knows this is an American story rather than a New England one, and the movie’s at its strongest sketching in the desperate cheer of subsidiary characters trying to get by in a system they thought was created for them. It wasn’t, but Wells won’t or can’t or daren’t go there. The result is, like its characters, a good and decent film in a world that rather heartlessly demands more.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

THE COMPANY MEN Written and directed by: John Wells

Starring: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Rosemarie DeWitt

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 109 minutes

Rated: R (language and brief nudity)

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