The Company Men; R, 113 minutes; Vinegar Hill Theatre

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The company man is a force to be reckoned with, for it is he who pretends that comradeship with his fellow workers matters more than saving face with management. The company man cannot be redeemed, for he bears much of the responsibility for the corrosion of the American Dream. But is he pitiable?

In The Company Men, three corporate executives played by Ben Affleck (right), Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones (left) are let go in a downsizing, and forced to redefine their lives as men, husbands and fathers.

That’s an open question in writer-director John Wells’ The Company Men, a dramatic feature film which feels like the field notes behind an anthropological account of corporate downsizing. For decades, Wells has held court as an executive producer in television, presiding over “ER” and “The West Wing,” among other standouts. Now he’s finally risen to the big screen, harnessing the star power of Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones.

But it’s not always enough for a man to coast on his credentials. That’s what Wells’ characters learn when the Great Recession comes to their Boston-based multinational transportation conglomerate.

Bobby (Affleck), the hotshot, has a big house and a big head. He golfs, gloats and guns his Porsche. He can’t even admit that he’s lost his job, let alone accept another from his resentful blue-collar brother-in-law (Costner), a lowly carpenter. Phil (Cooper) is the seasoned executive who came by his high status honestly, by working his way up from the bottom rung. Now, with the company suddenly out of his life, the fact that the company was his life doesn’t bode well. Gene (Jones), a company co-founder, has sense enough to give his wife a withering look when she asks to borrow one of the corporate jets for a shopping trip to Palm Springs.

As Wells depicts his characters’ crumbling complacency, we feel the contaminating radiation of economic implosion. Oh, the poor little rich boys! But the ensemble approach is self-diluting, too. Wells is better at gradual portraiture than dramaturgy, and because this is film and not TV, it comes off as a gathering of good performances in search of a greater meaning.

One virtue of the season-long episodic structure is the sense of progression it allows. We casually check in on multiple characters, and feel our lives moving along as theirs do, without the urgency to wrap things up in a couple hours. Great films make those captive hours feel like whole lifetimes, but they depend on a metabolism that Wells has yet to master.

And so he corners himself into a contrived denouement: the swell of anthemic music, shorthand for optimism, and the unconvincing call to scale down our priorities, take a deep breath, do a bootstrap tug and get back to work. Still, the men shine, because Roger Deakins’ cinematography supplies just the right kind of polished gloom. If their familiar and presumably pitiable woe is not entirely cathartic, it is at least as watchable as a collective cringe-worthy life crisis can be. 

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