Saturday, December 11, 2010

THE COMPANY MEN is the politically enlightened feel-bad movie of the year, about a bunch of laid-off workers in the New Depression. Since retail clerks, car washers, and teacher's aides would be too downbeat, our heroes are all making hundreds of thousands of dollars for a megacorp when they are brought low.

Ben Affleck (the youngish $160K salesman) is an entitled asshole who gets worse under the pressure of failure until he is spiritually transformed by a job building houses for his gold-hearted, earth-salty fatherbrother-in-law (Kevin Costner). This leaves the big-picture suffering to the big wheels: Chris Cooper, a former shipbuilder who rose with the firm and, cut loose in his 50s, takes to drink; and Tommy Lee Jones, a top exec whose longtime friendship with the CEO counts for nothing, leaving him to brood, if in high style, on the unfairness of it all.

"All" includes Jones' speech at a rotting shipyard: "We used to make something here, back before we got lost in all the paperwork…6,000 men earning an honest wage in that room, fed their kids, bought homes, made enough to send their kids to college," etc. And Costner scoffing at a CEO's salary, "is [he] working 700 times harder than the welder pounding hot rivets into a tanker hull all day?"

This is corny but not wrong, which I could say about the whole movie. Even those of us who never saw a sixth figure in our entire working lives can relate to the mood-swings, frustrations, and humiliations of long unemployment in a rotten economy, even when they are suffered by people with greens fees who are forced by cruel circumstance to sell the Porsche. And audiences would probably prefer to see Ben Affleck sliding from a McMansion to his parents' perfectly nice house, rather than from crappy apartment to shelter or street.

Whether they'll be cheering when [spoilers alert] Affleck and a bunch of other rejects gets a second chance because the rich guy with a conscience decides America will start building things again, dammit, is another matter. The Company Men is rife with Bad Hollywood earmarks. Tommy Lee Jones has an affair with Maria Bello, for one thing, fulfilling the tinseltown tradition of hot chicks nuzzling grizzled old men and no other need. Even when the situations are realistic, the dialogue is mostly formula. In fact the formula is formula; Affleck's construction-jawb buddies are all out of the file drawer (good fellas, though one is arrested for drunk and disawderly) and his Mrs. and young Bawby are still wearing their Supportive Family tags.

This might have been better directed by Oliver Stone at his most coked-up, inflating everything to cosmic scale. But Stone isn't what he used to be, as proven by Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, another disaster with an incongruously happy ending (with flashes of the old glory, like a financial collapse symbolized by actual falling dominoes). Maybe ships aren't the only thing America no longer knows how to build.

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