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There are only lows in The Company Men, a film about corporate layoffs. At least, that is, until an ending that’s so whiplash-positive it nearly undoes the fine work that came before it in writer-director John Wells’ big-screen debut.
The film begins with shots of huge houses, fancy cars, and giant flat-screens as the high-ranking men of GTX, or Global Transportation Systems, suit up for work. Bobby (Ben Affleck) is a hotshot sales exec who greets the day with cheerfulness and a flip attitude until he finally realizes the somberness of those around him: “What happened, somebody die?” He’s oblivious to the fact that branches of his company have been shut down; an urgent call to meet with a supervisor (Maria Bello) means that he’s the next to go. He responds with a “Fuck off!”, gathers his things, and heads home in his Porsche to his wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt). Bobby pouts for sympathy but is confident that his three months’ severance will be more than enough for his family to continue their lifestyle without adjustment while he finds an equally lucrative job.
Still employed but sweating the downsizing are veterans Gene (Tommy Lee Jones) and Phil (Chris Cooper). Gene is the conscious of the company, getting on the CEO (Craig T. Nelson) about his office Degas, outrageous salary, and lack of concern over the laid-off employees under Gene’s supervision. Phil, meanwhile, is an equally concerned but looser cannon, claiming he’d “take an AK-47 to this fucking place” before he let himself be fired. Whatever their ultimate fate, it’s clear that their days of three-martini lunches and expensed business trips are largely over. Meanwhile, their company is building a fancy new headquarters.
You don’t have to be a suit to find much of The Company Men wrenching; anyone who’s earned a paycheck and paid a bill will feel the pink-slipped’s pain. (Though some will certainly find it difficult to empathize with men who whine about driving a sensible car or admit, “I liked $500 lunches.”) Bobby, however, initially doesn’t seem to feel any. He refuses to go along with Maggie’s attempts to cut back, even getting angry at her when he finds out that she’s had to forgo his country-club dues in order to pay the mortgage. When her blue-collar brother (Kevin Costner) offers Bobby work, he responds, “I don’t exactly see myself hanging drywall” before walking away. Yes, you’ll want someone to punch him, but it’s a testament to Affleck’s cocky, angry, spot-on performance.
After all this stress, ending the film on a down note might have thrust it into why-should-we-bother territory. Who wants to see the effects of a fictional recession during a real one? (2009’s Up in the Air handled the same topic with some humor and, thanks to a central romance, more heart.) But Wells has miscalculated by yanking our chins up so fiercely in the film’s final minutes—it doesn’t feel organic, just tacked-on for the sake of some uplift. Worse, unlike losing a job or tightening a belt, the options offered these men aren’t exactly relatable to the majority of viewers. Which, ironically, leads to why-should-we-bother, anyway.