The Company Men

The Company Men is a solid drama that hardly anybody is going to pay to see on the big screen because it’s about something scarier than cancer — being unemployed. Put it on your list to see when it comes out on DVD, however, because the film offers the rare chance to see three good actors, often underappreciated, strutting their stuff in good character parts.

It’s 2010. All those other people in other cities in other companies are getting laid off. Couldn’t possibly happen to you if you’ve either been at the company for years, or have a nice long list of positive notations in your yearly job review. Think again. When the GTX Corporation in Boston has to downsize, all bets are off.

First to go is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a hotshot MBA on the rise, who’s expecting a promotion. To his utter shock, he gets the axe. With his education, drive, terrific resume and good looks, he figures in a few weeks, he’ll have a perfect new job. Think again. His wife is the first to face the handwriting on the walls and puts the over-mortgaged house on the market. Then Bobby, a guy who can barely pound a nail straight in, has to take a job working construction with his brother-in-law. Weeks turn into months. His whole world has turned inside out, his marriage shattered, his pride destroyed. Welcome to the reality of long-term unemployment.

Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is assured that his many years of superb service to the company will protect him–until the day they don’t. As an older man, his chances of finding a job comparable to the one he lost are practically non-existent. Welcome to the reality of the laid off older worker.

The concept of unemployment has never even occurred to Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). As number 2 man in the company, he built up GTX Corporation from scratch for decades with the owner, James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson). He vociferously voices his complaints about the lay-offs. With a couple mansions, a yacht. a wife somewhere, and a sexy mistress, McClary assumes he is untouchable. Think again. When he gets his pink slip, he is not only flabbergasted, but also humiliated, because the person delivering the news is none other than his mistress Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) who also happens to be head of HR at GTX. Welcome to the reality of loyalty in the workplace.

How these three men handle their sudden dismissal is the interweaving arc of the story. Coming as it does from the pen and helm of a veteran TV writer/director, John Wells, the story has the certain predictability of a movie of the week. The pleasure is seeing the actors get into their roles, not being surprised with the outcomes of their characters.

Let’s notice a few things. All these guys are white, and fit well into a three-piece suit. We never find out what happens to the women laid off from GTX, especially all those single mothers. Nor do we even see an employee of color in the whole time we’re in the GTX corporate offices. So this movie is not a well-rounded depiction of the country’s huge unemployment crisis — no, as the title says, it’s about company men.

The psychological traumas these men go through are common to all workers who lose a job they counted on. It’s not just corporate job losses that have these traumas. Job loss happens a lot in life and doesn’t make the financial news. For example, my sister took care of my elderly mother for many years. My mother died last year. My sister not only has been grieving the loss of my mother, but the loss of her job. She has the same problems–loss of daily purpose, loss of self-esteem, rejection in the job force, an unpredictable future, etc.–that the company men in the film do.

Due to my divorce, I’ve recently lost my job as wife–I can assure you it’s just as traumatic as losing a 9-5 job, especially since being a spouse was a 24-7 position. When kids go off to school — Mom and Dad both lose their jobs as onsite parents. I have a friend who is still grieving the break-up of her church’s choir — it was her job to be at rehearsal at the church three times a week. Without that job, she seems rudderless.

It is to find sympathy for all those other “job losses” in life that I think The Company Men — even though it’s snow white and all male– is worth seeing. The average audience member can see reflected the life losses they have experience themselves as well as the losses their friends and family have endured.

Maybe we could show The Company Men to a few dozen Congresspersons to help them get over their cruel fantasies that the unemployed like being unemployed.

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