The Company Men
2011 (to be released Jan 21)
The Company Men is what Wall Street 2 might have been if the screenwriters
didn't feel obligated to feature Gordon Gecko. It carries on the theme
preached by the Martin Sheen character at the end of Wall Street: create
something real. Don't make money simply by moving around imaginary paper
transactions, because in the end an economy based upon that is nothing but a
magic act - an illusion that works only as long as everyone believes in it. In
2008 everyone stopped believing, corporations faced difficult decisions, jobs
disappeared, homes were lost, and lives were turned upside down. That's what
The Company Men is about.
The auteur understands, at least on an instinctive
basis, that the most vulnerable players in the new economy are middle
managers. Most of the highly compensated low-level jobs disappeared when
manufacturing started to disappear from North America. In the old
manufacturing economy, those assembly line guys were in highly vulnerable
positions because they got paid more than their potential replacements. They
needed unions and government intervention to make sure they were not replaced
arbitrarily. In a society filled with McJobs, however, the lowest level
employees are completely safe if they make a reasonable effort and don't steal
7-Eleven is not going to lay the night-shift guy off. He can probably
keep that job for life, if he wants it. The company needs those unglamorous
jobs to get done, and the wages are generally so low that there are not
battalions of people standing in line for them, even during a recession.
Similarly, the CEO's and CFO's jobs need to get done, and a company can't even
survive without good men in those seats.
But everyone else's job is vulnerable.
To the extent that The Company Men concentrates on the lives of
newly-unemployed middle managers, the film is on very solid ground. It has
identified the right victims of the new economy, and it has presented the
struggles of those executives in a manner that is both effective and
realistic. I can attest to that, because I once went through the same thing
that the Ben Affleck character went through in this film. One day I was one of
my company's superstars and the next day I was unemployed. The
writer/director, John Wells, really did his homework on this aspect of the
film. The executive outplacement services are portrayed exactly as they are.
The stages which Affleck goes through are precisely as I remember them from my
experience in his shoes.
Where the film fails is on the other side of the equation. The auteur
succumbs to the temptation to portray the firm's CEO as a callous, greedy
character who is not substantially more dimensional than Mr. Burns on The
Simpsons. I know three CEOs of large companies, and they are all
intelligent, thoughtful and humane. Not a single one of them could play a CEO in a
Hollywood movie. But every single one of them knows that the reason
corporations exist is to create value for the shareholders, and the reason he
has his job is that he creates far more value than he takes out in
compensation. There no sense whining about the fact that CEO's make X million
dollars per year. They get that money because the shareholders believe they
can create far more than that. Believe me, if you could convince a company
that you could add $100 million to its market value, they would have no
problem paying you five million a year to do just that. In that sense, good CEOs are actually underpaid.
They may bring the company many, many times their salaries in increased profit
and market capitalization. On the other hand, the assembly line worker is
probably overpaid, especially if he's been around a long
time. That's reality. If he's getting paid $30 an hour, you can bet that there
is a hungry young guy who will do the job faster and better for $20 an hour.
In other words, the system may suck for the little guy, but saying that it
sucks is not the same as saying it is unfair. The problem with capitalism is
not that it is unfair, but that it is altogether too fair. It will reward
employees only if they can prove that the company is better off retaining
them, and it will not consider whether they put in more than they took out in
the past, but simply whether retaining them now will add to or detract from
the company's current and future value. And even if they pass the test today,
they may be fired next month if something changes. Yes, that is greedy. Of
course corporations are greedy. We WANT them to be greedy, because our
retirement funds are invested in them, and we want those nest eggs to be as
big as possible. Placing a control on this greed, making sure that pragmatic
business decisions are tempered by the humane and charitable treatment of
employees, is government's job. Sure, some corporations break the laws, and
their management should be punished when that happens, but if you have a
problems with a business which is abiding by the rules and laws, your
disagreements with their practices are not with them, but with the lawmakers
who created the rules which allowed and sanctioned that behavior. The
corporation's function in society is to make as much profit as it can within
the rules established by the society in which it operates.
The author of this film doesn't really seem to understand how all of this
works. He rants against senior management, and he fills the second half of the
film with trite monologues which inevitably pontificate about the value of
honest hard workers, the kind of workers who create something of true value:
the farmers who create our food, the carpenters who create our furniture and
shelter, the manufacturers who build our cars, and so forth. All of those
people are marvelous indeed, but we are not going to suddenly turn America
into to some kind of giant Amish commune. The big new fortunes of today are
not generated by the Amish, or even by the industrial giants who used to
employ armies of blue-collar workers, but by Google and EA and Facebook - entities created by people who have devised vast
enterprises which exist entirely in the ether, and who now employ thousands of other people like themselves,
not farmers, not carpenters, not union guys, but guys who sit in chairs and
stare at bright screens all day; not guys who work with their backs, but guys
who work with their brains. That's just the way it is in our
post-industrial world. The big question is this: how can we realistically
create a future world in which the other Americans - the ones with strong
backs and no coding skills - can also have a satisfying non-criminal life when
the value of manual labor is set by the global free market, and is therefore
at a third world level. To my knowledge, nobody has a solution to that, least
of all the author of The Company Men.
If only the author had not tried to deal with the global issues and had
stuck with the personal stories, this would be an excellent film.
Unfortunately, when he tries to reach farther, he overreaches, and turns the
second half of the film into a series of laughably simple homilies about a
subject so labyrinthine that a solution escapes even the most complex minds.
That's a shame, because if The Company Men had concentrated solely on the
human effects of the
layoffs, which it seemed to get exactly right, it might have been
But it didn't, and it isn't.
Maria Bello does a topless scene. It is completely gratuitous.
The nudity doesn't demonstrate her vulnerability, and it's not titillating
either. It's just casual. 90% of the scene is shot from Tommy Lee Jones's
point of view - looking at her from behind. The camera leaves that perspective
only long enough to flash Maria's breasts, then returns to it!
If the camera had stayed behind her, the scene would have been no better or
worse. In other words, the director shows her breasts just for the sake of showing her
My kind of guy!
the script, if you want to read it.
Ebert: three stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive