Comparisons between Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (2009) and writer/director John Wells’ The Company Men are inevitable. Both revolve around the dark side of corporate life, where desperate people lose their jobs and their livelihood, but take starkly different approaches: the former a droll dramedy following a man who fires people for a living and the latter a serious consideration of what happens when these people go home, get up the next morning and continue on with their lives.

Based in American in 2010, The Company Men is a GFC set drama about three men who face the boot at work. Chris Cooper is Phil Woodward, the oldest and most desperate. Tommy Lee Jones is Gene McClary, who takes moral objections to where his company is heading (downsizing, chased by downsizing). Both provide strong supporting performances.

Ben Affleck takes the chunkiest slice of the pie as Bobby Walker, a sacked high income sales manager forced to deal with massive blows to his pride and hip pocket. He is the manifestation of what downsizing means for the upper class: cancelled golf club memberships, an expensive house to mortgage, no budget for new silk sheets or old Pinot.

Walker’s from-riches-to-slightly-less-riches plight isn’t exactly The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) or Three Dollars (2005), but one of Afflecks better performances – a winning combination of fragility and arrogance – has the audience genuinely feeling for him. Even (perhaps especially) when he decides to build houses with Kevin Costner, in everyday nice guy mode as a meat’n’veg constructionist. “When Affleck’s character is desperate he goes to Kevin Costner,” quipped my companion. “Just like Hollywood.”

Wells’ screenplay smoothly and convincingly tells a story all too true to many Americans, revolving around ethical dilemmas, losing employment, taking a hefty pay cut, the accompanying feelings of grief and failure.

Wells’ measured approach is refreshingly light on burn the fat cats rhetoric, even if The Company Men’s emotional drive is at times a little plodding and fuzzy around the edges.

Regardless, it works. Whenever The Company Men looks like it’s about to fall into overt sentimentality, Wells pulls the film back from the precipice and makes you appreciate what he doesn’t do almost as much as what he does. Convincing performances and empathetic characters push it across the line.

The Company Men’s Australian theatrical release date: March 10, 2010.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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