Years ago, Tommy Lee Jones came to Tokyo and said to a room full of overworked reporters: “I envy the Japanese. You don’t have any vacation time. I hate vacations, they make me ill.” That must have struck a resounding chord with the media here, because soon after that Jones started appearing in ads, adorned posters and got a guest spot on a variety show. No wonder the guy looked so convincing in drab, dark business suits: He was one of us!
Indeed, the role of cranky, creased, nicotine-soaked workaholic fits Jones like a seat groove on the Tokaido Line. He’s perfect in “The Company Men,” playing a guy who worked his way up the ladder rung by bloody rung, and then waxes eloquent about those same rungs, back in the good old days.
“The Company Men” has the tag line, “In America, we give our lives to our jobs. It’s time to take them back.” But you can see from Jones’ expression that though he may say stuff like that — to console a laid-off employee, for example — in his heart, he’s saying “No way.” Downtime? Family time? Slow life with the wife? Mention these things and he may run screaming from the room.
“The Company Men” is a recession-era fable which would have been a warmer, fuzzier tale had the recession been actually over, which it ain’t. As a result, the pain seems real and urgent, the predicaments wincingly familiar, and the depiction of the unemployment offices (euphemistically called “outplacement centers”; I prefer Japan’s Hello Work myself) reminds you of the “Saw” movie series minus the blades. An unfortunate byproduct is that after all the depression, the self-loathing, the many glasses of whisky and the yelling at the missus, the story manages to ward off the worst of the blows. We see some heavy-duty boxing gloves distributed to the guys, but they’re so padded as to cushion and absorb everything.
Set in Boston, the story revolves around three men of different generations, all of whom have worked for GTX, an East Coast shipbuilding empire that Jones’ character Gene McClary built up from scratch. When that empire shatters around his ears, CEO Jim Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), who also happens to be Gene’s oldest friend, decides to lay off 3,000 workers. Hotshot sales exec Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck on top form) is one of them, and he takes the plunge from a golf-playing, paper-shuffling, six-figure-income existence to zilch.
Contrasting to Bobby’s MBA-on-autopilot life is Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who has been bleeding for GTX since his teens and gets the pink slip just as his daughter’s college fees are rolling in.
Gene can’t bear the fact that the company, his company, is doing the dirty on these people and many others, though he claims to enjoy flying around in the company jet and shacking up with a sizzling mid-level exec (Maria Bello) in hotel suites just as much as the next filthy-rich guy. “It’s wrong, it’s all wrong,” he says hoarsely to Jim, who, as it turns out, couldn’t care less.
Director John Wells (famed for helming the “E.R.” TV series), who glides gracefully back and forth between the parallel worlds of white-collar digital-screen addicts and beer-chugging hard-hats, racks up credibility points like mad until the last 20 minutes. And then he can’t stand it anymore and sprints for the nearest aid station equipped with a couch and a minibar.
In a perverse way, the lesson strikes home anyway, and it amounts to this: The biggest difference between rich and poor is that rich is better. Duh.
Still, “The Company Men” toes a fine line between hard-line social commentary and touching (albeit easy) sentiment. Some of Wells’ descriptions of post-Lehman-disaster corporate America hurt so much they’re funny. A little girl intones, “Dear God, please give my daddy a job so he’ll stop being so unhappy,” in front of a Thanksgiving table laden with food, in a well-heated suburban home with sunlight streaming in through the windows. The wolf at the door (if it’s actually there) is so docile as to be mistaken for an old family faithful.
The surprise among all these over-privileged men in tailored suits is Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner), who hails from a decreasing breed of men unafraid of an honest day’s work. Jack is a house renovator, and when he offers Bobby a job (out of the kindness of his heart and because Bobby’s married to his sister), the ex-exec snobbishly turns it down. “Your husband’s such a dick,” Jack observes to little sis. Truer words were never spoken.