Review in a Hurry: Veteran TV producer John Wells filters the economic disaster through the eyes of the laid-off, but not even Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones can save this uneven movie.
The Bigger Picture: John Wells is best known for executive producing and writing ER; he had a gift for deftly orchestrating tonally diverse subject matter in the course of one hour. The Company Men, written and directed by Wells, tries to do the same thing, but just can't pull it off.
The story weaves between an out–of-touch CEO (Craig T. Nelson), his über-ethical right hand man (Jones), and his star employee (Affleck). A round of layoffs jump-starts the plot as their company tries to stay afloat during the Great Economic Collapse of 2008. The issues of the day – corporate America's obsession with profits, the lack of domestic manufacturing jobs, and the lure of material goods—all play out in a lumpy script that unwinds in fits and starts.
It's not clear what style Wells is shooting for. Is he going for subtlety and finesse, or is he making an adult After School Special? Hard to say. He doesn't connect the dots between huge plot points (a characters' divorce, another's foreclosure), yet writes on-message lines like "We work for the stockholders now!"
In some scenes he takes a hands-off, arms-length approach typical of more avant-garde directors; in others, he's as earnestly plainspoken as another show he produced, The West Wing.
It's also hard to sympathize with the main characters.
They're either old-hat stereotypes (the Company Man whose entire identity was his job, the Company Man who is bored and wants to do something Meaningful) or just plain obnoxious. At first you take pity on Ben Affleck's out-of-work family man, until you hear that his monthly dry cleaning and restaurant expenses total in the hundreds.
The best storytelling is free and easy—it unfurls like a flag. Not so with The Company Men. Wells wants to make a message movie with Oscar-worthy subtlety, but instead of a smooth blend of techniques, you can feel the movie switching gears.
The 180—a Second Opinion: One of the best cinematic depictions of marriage in a long time, Ben Affleck and Rosemarie DeWitt's couplehood is real, three-dimensional, complicated, and ultimately uplifting. It's the one aspect of the movie that was unpredictable and satisfying.