At the start of The Company Men, Bobby (Ben Affleck) is a youngish executive with a beautiful wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), a couple of kids, and a terrific house in the Boston burbs. As he drives his nice car to work on a sunny morning, he has no idea that his life will, anon, be changed forever, that he will lose his job at the shipbuilding company where he’s worked for 12 years. “The company’s consolidating,” he’s told, and so he’ll be dispatched with a “generous severance package,” including full pay for 12 weeks and a stint with a placement service.
On hearing this news, Bobby’s predictably apoplectic, going so far as to tell hatchet-person Sally (Maria Bello) to “Fuck off.” Of course, Bobby can’t know, in this first blush of post-employment, that his life will in fact improve in the difficult weeks to come, and that he will become a Better Person.
It’s a pretty-to-think-so takeaway, a point that’s earnest and well-meaning and seemingly topical, but also romantic in the blandest sense. It turns out that Bobby, for all his ambition and self-assurance and sales skills, is missing what’s most important in life, you know, spending time with his family and (who knew?) learning to pound nails and put up dry-wall. This last life lesson comes courtesy of Bobby’s contractor brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner)—who serves here as kind of updated, left-leaning Clarence the Angel, full of wisdom and generosity, with a dash of manly abrasiveness so his radiant integrity isn’t too, too obvious.
All this is to say that Bobby’s changes in fortune take some time to take shape, and that he does indeed spend much of John Wells’ movie feeling confused and frustrated and righteously angry. Before he learns the moral value of manual labor, Bobby initially resents his days at the placement service, where he’s instructed on how to update his resume and make cold calls from a cubicle, and where his new friends among the recently unemployed include a black person, Danny (Eamonn Walker). Indeed, Bobby comes to like Danny so much, that he helps him also get a job with Jack too, so that both of them might make fun of the older white guy’s lack of rhythm.
While this joke at Jack’s expense is presented as a sign of Bobby’s personal growth, the movie does not rely only on race stereotypes to make its ethical points. Age and class are issues too, their complications embodied by Bobby’s former colleagues at the company, account rep Phil (Chris Cooper) and Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), second in command and baffled by the brutal cost-cutting undertaken by his old friend, the CEO Craig Salinger (Craig T. Nelson).
Phil is the designated “older worker” whose sacking is emotionally catastrophic. His self-identity is wholly wrapped up in this job he’s had all his life—he started, he reminds anyone who will listen—as a shipyard laborer, at a time when workers “made things they could see,” and the company wasn’t so concentrated on moving contracts and profits around. Phil’s experience at the placement service is not nearly so self-improving as Bobby’s, as he’s instructed by the lady-behind-the-desk that he must dye his hair and take the dates out of his resume, then genuflect before any number of snooty executives who won’t actually think of giving him a job. As much as Phil works to maintain his own sort of stiff upper lip, when he arrives at one interview, his face falls as the camera pulls out to reveal a hallway full of 20-years-younger men in matching suits, al waiting for the same interview while hunched over their BlackBerrys.
A moment like this is surely poignant, but also typical of The Company Men‘s heavy-handed storytelling. Cooper’s celebrated subtlety, effective for seconds at a time, is also too frequently overwhelmed by the film’s commitment to over-explaining. Similarly, Gene’s own, very different sorts of losses (less material than Phil’s or Bobby’s) are rendered in broad strokes: his socialite wife Cynthia (Patricia Kalember) continues to purchase luxury items with money they apparently do have (he’s got company shares), but without showing proper upset at everyone else’s bad straits or even some appreciation for his own grief. Gene laments what’s become of the company (again, which used to “make something”), his greedy and indecorously desperate friend Craig, or his sad, sad underlings Phil and Bobby. Gene’s compassion now makes him incompatible with Cynthia, who pouts for a moment when she learns she no longer has access to the corporate jet for a weekend shopping trip.
If Gene has the wherewithal to regroup financially, Bobby acts out a more visibly emotional and philosophical trajectory. Literally, he plays catch with his son (who, unbeknownst to his dad, sells his beloved Xbox to help out), Literally, he dons a brand new tool belt and boots to work with Jack, so the professional carpenters can smile in amusement. And literally, he plays muddy touch football with his fellow unemployed, a brief instant of exuberance worthy of Brett Favre’s Wrangler jeans. All these images convey too obviously the revelations Bobby undergoes, his recommitments and changing priorities, his better person-ness. He doesn’t literally find Zuzu’s petals, though. That would be too much.