Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is living the proverbial American dream: great job, beautiful family, shiny Porsche in the garage. When corporate downsizing leaves him and co-workers Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) jobless, the three men are forced to re-define their lives as men, husbands and fathers.
Bobby soon finds himself enduring enthusiastic life coaching, a job building houses for his brother-in-law (Kevin Costner) that does not play to his executive skill set, and perhaps -- the realization that there is more to life than chasing the bigger, better deal. With humor, pathos, and keen observation, writer-director John Wells ("ER," "The West Wing," and "Southland") introduces us to the new realities of American life.
What do you do when all the stuff you hold on to—that stuff people always told you mattered—is taken away? What do you do when you lose all those trappings you worked so hard for, that are supposed to be little emblems of success and achievement? These questions permeate The Company Men, the moving new feature film from acclaimed writer, producer and director, John Wells.
At first glance The Company Men seems inspired by the headlines. Indeed, the September 21st cover of TIME entitled "Out of Work in America," profiles dozens of Americans, now ten percent of the working population, hit the hardest by the current economic recession. They are, in essence, representatives of the lead character, Bobby Walker, struggling to rise above the frustration and embarrassment to find their way again.
Where The Company Men delivers well-beyond its newsworthy subject matter, is its astute exploration of the human spirit, not as a predictable or maudlin "man triumphs over tough odds" story but in the gripping push and pull of those at every level of the economic ladder trying to reconnect with the things that matter most in life.
At its heart, The Company Men is not "the recession movie" but rather a film that traces the journey back home— to family, to love, and to the joy that comes from building something from the ground up.
"After the panic of 'what are we going to do' recedes, there is a universal lesson learned," said Wells. "And that involves worrying a little bit less about what car we have in the garage, and worrying a little bit more about how much time we spend with our families and the people who are going to support us when we have difficult times."
Wells wrote the story after the last economic recession in the early nineties. It is loosely based on his experiences of his friends, family and acquaintances of various soci-economic backgrounds. After toying with trying to get the script made seventeen years ago, Wells eventually put it a drawer and went on to become one of the most prolific writer-producers in television history. The credits speak for themselves— "China Beach," "The West Wing," "Third Watch," "Southland," "Shameless," and "ER" which recently became the most Emmy-nominated show of all-time.
For all his success, it was his experience as a young man that provided the inspiration for this film, his feature film directorial debut.
"When I was growing up, I worked a lot of carpentry jobs," remembers Wells. "As we drove to gets things from the hardware store, the older guys that I worked with pointed out all the houses they built. They had proof of something physical that they had worked on, something that they were proud of. They had the power to say 'I built that.' And that's something we've gotten away from in this new economy and in our everyday lives."
It is at this crossroads where we meet The Company Men.
The story unfolds from the perspective of an extraordinary ensemble cast, featuring Academy Award® winners Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper and Kevin Costner, as well as in remarkable turns by Craig T. Nelson, Rosemarie Dewitt and Maria Bello. Each actor delves deep into the complications and nuances of every word of Wells' deft script. The characters and their circumstances are captured in breathtaking detail by Academy- Award® nominated cinematographer, Roger Deakins (No Country For Old Men, The Shawshank Redemption).
One morning Affleck's Bobby Walker shoots a round of golf with some business associates. He is the pillar of confidence, complete with a Porsche and a low golf score to boot. Walker is a twelve-year veteran at GTX, a large manufacturing conglomerate with more than 60,000 employees. Moments after winning his match, he loses his job due to corporate "redundancies." Affleck is in the transportation sector, the lowest performing asset in the GTX portfolio.
"Bobby loses more than his job," says Affleck. "He loses status. He loses his place in American upper middle class corporate hierarchy - you know the nice car, the nice house – and a sense of himself as somebody important. And one day, because of a calculated decision in a board room, he gets moved down the ladder in American consumer life. That's a really powerful adjustment for him to make, a humbling adjustment and forces him to re-calibrate his priorities."
Bobby quickly moves into denial and refuses to let his family, beyond his wife (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) know he has been fired. He sets off on a job search with bravado, confident he will land on his feet before his severance kicks in. It's clear he needs it. Like many American's Affleck's character is living beyond his means, with a hefty mortgage to boot. The actual house used in the film for Ben and Rosemarie was that of a man earning exactly that of Affleck's character, who had been laid off and was now forced to commute to Chicago to make ends meet.
"In the research I did, particularly for men, it is extremely emasculating to be laid off," said Affleck. "Often men lie about it or they try to get another job before anyone finds out. America is founded on the idea that if you work hard, and you play by the rules, you can work your way up. And the idea that one day you're going to move backward, you're going to move down the ladder, it can be excruciatingly embarrassing."
Tommy Lee Jones's stars as the complex character, Gene McClary, the number two at GTX. McClary founded GTX with James Salinger (played by Craig T. Nelson). At the start of the story, GTX is at the crux of an important merger and Nelson's Salinger is trying to juice GTX stock by announcing rounds of large scale lay-offs and closing underperforming parts of the business. McClary, who has become increasingly disheartened with the direction his company has taken, stands up to Nelson at every turn, himself becoming a target.
"It's a recession— there are a lot of people being let go, a lot of people being fired," offers Jones. "But, there are more important things in Gene's world- view: relationships with people, loyalty, experience, people working on something together, to build it, to grow, so that all their lives might grow. And I think that sense of so-called "business community" is very important to the character of Gene."
Jones' character seeks solace from GTX and his spend-happy wife, through an affair with GTX's head of Human Resources, Sally Wilcox, (played by Maria Bello).
"Gene's found his own private life to be somewhat lacking," continues Jones. "It is very opulent; the material benefits of his job are manifest in his house, cars, clothes. But his relationship with his wife is not really very vital— it is somewhat distant. So, his human needs bring him into a relationship with Maria Bello's character, a rather close, intimate relationship."
Enter Chris Cooper. "I won't let the bastards just kick me out after thirty years," says Cooper's character, Phil Woodward. "I'll take an AK-47 to this fucking place first!"
Cooper's Woodward is fearfully defiant in the wake of all this workplace tragedy.
"I think he feels a little secure in the beginning," offers Cooper. "He suggests to Gene that he's not going to go back down on the shop floor. So I think he feels a little secure that he may be demoted, but not fired. But, then down the road, the story changes, and he becomes quite desperate as he is being challenged by a more youthful group of people."
As the beauty of the New England autumn gives way to harshness of the cold Boston winter, Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris Cooper's characters set down a path of the unfamiliar. Jones' McClary contests potential lay-offs while yearning for the woman doing the firing; Cooper's Woodward wrestles with how to find a way to say "no" to the wife and daughter he has provided everything for; and Affleck is lost in the demoralizing world of a job placement center, dead-end job interviews, being one MBA amongst many and learning how to be a role model for his distraught son.
Through each of these journeys The Company Men fight to regain their dignity and transcend their situations. The viewer is given a window into the contrasts of class: prestigious Man of the Year dinners and quaint backyard barbecues; luxury private jets and beat-up trucks; football games and board rooms; tiny houses full of life and mansions empty with grief.
Kevin Costner, well-known for extraordinary repertoire of colorful yet flawed characters, adds another layer of depth to the story with a turn as a comical contractor, Jack Dolan, whose bigheartedness offers a life-raft in the form of a carpentry job to his brother-in-law Bobby. Affleck's character initially snubs his nose at the generosity of Costner's character, but reconsiders out of dire circumstances. More than just a fish out of water subplot, Affleck's literal putting the house back together, helps bridge class and family divides.
"I identified very quickly with the juxtaposition Jack provides to the main characters in the movie who are maneuvering in the corporate world and who are falling apart because of the corporate world,' said Costner. "Ben's character and I have this uneasy relationship because Bobby has been on this pretty fast-track of success, moving 100,000-200,000 bonuses, and I've been squeaking along with my life. I'm raising my three boys, a little league coach, sponsored by my construction company. And when the world turns for Bobby, there's a moment in time where it becomes evident that family has to help family."
As the winter snows thaw and spring emerges, so do The Company Men. Some stronger. Some defeated. The film underscores as Wells describes "how we reconnect with what it is that makes our lives have value."
In one of the more touching moments of the film, Affleck's character approaches Rosemarie DeWitt's Maggie, and apologies for "letting his wife down." She doesn't accept it. "You were never here before. And now you are."