Thursday, January 20, 2011

They're casualties of a shifting economy

Woes in the world of management; execs feel the pain, too.
Just about all the men in The Company Men have enjoyed success. Their houses are spacious. They drive upscale cars. Their kids don't want for anything. Class trip to Italy? Not a problem. They're competent businessmen who believe they've earned the fruits of corporate life at a Boston company that made its name building ships. Of course all bubbles eventually burst, and, in the hands of director John Wells, The Company Men becomes a lingering look at what happens when a company begins to shed once valued employees who have turned into excess baggage.

Dead weight, it should be noted, has nothing to do with skill, experience or even prior success. It has to do only with balky parts of the company that have become a drag on profits and, thus, a worry for stockholders. A company that made its bones in the rugged world of manufacturing now sees its future in a newly acquired health-care subsidiary. And all those men who built and sold the ships? Well, that's why we have scrap heaps.

The Company Men has obvious relevance in a time of economic duress. It begins during the Bush administration and continues for a year. For a while, the movie does a good job chronicling the fate of newly unemployed executives, men who are unaccustomed to viewing themselves as failures or showing up at a less-than-luxe placement center.

All well and good, but somewhere along the line, Wells begins to succumb to predictability; he shrinks from the tough conclusions that deserve to be drawn from this story and offers light at the end of a dark economic tunnel. He also concentrates his attention on a well-heeled management class, paying relatively little attention to workers who also have been cast aside. In fact, they're mostly invisible.

Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a confident salesman who's among the first to be fired. He's followed by a variety of others, including Chris Cooper's Phil Woodward, an executive who worked his way up from the factory floor. Tommy Lee Jones plays the tough-minded head of the ship-building division, a guy who values his employes and who believes in the old-fashioned way of doing business; i.e., making things and selling them for a profit. His view obviously is losing traction.

As Bobby's brother-in-law, Kevin Costner gives a nice small performance. He's a contractor who mistrusts what he sees as Bobby's white-collar arrogance. Costner's Jack Dolan ultimately helps Bobby rediscover a sense of purpose in hard, physical labor, not the first evidence of the cliches that increasingly make their presence felt.

Scenes at the fictional GTX Corp. ring true, as does the performance of Craig T. Nelson as the company's hard-assed CEO. Nelson's character has adjusted to new economic realities and is blessed with the ability to avoid looking back. He's aided in his downsizing efforts by an equally tough woman (Maria Bello) who delivers lots of bad news to lots of angry employees.

Affleck gives a convincing performance as a man whose confidence is put to the test. When men are fired, their egos also are downsized. They've lost their place in the world.

It's fair to say, though, that Wells' screenplay might have benefited from a harder edge and a tougher conclusion. The Company Men should not be dismissed, but when it's done, you may realize how much more it could have accomplished.

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