'The Company Men' and the Rise of the Unemployment Flick

The Ben Affleck drama takes on the recession more directly—but less effectively—than others in the recent crop of layoff-minded movies

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The Weinstein Company / Lionsgate / Fox Searchlight

The Company Men, a handsome layoff drama released this week on home video, opens with sound bites of breaking financial-meltdown news. It then proceeds to cut between its central characters going through their morning rituals, their TVs tuned to a channel streaming stock prices across the bottom of the screen.

Worrying news snippets show up again throughout the movie, as Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones)—laid off successively from a Boston-based corporation called GTX, which started out building ships and has since expanded to numerous other ventures—putter around their homes, or wait patiently in lobbies to be summoned to job interviews. The financial crisis itself almost seems to be a character in writer-director John Wells's film; one almost imagines it luring these high earners to their television sets, Videodrome-style, only to swallow them whole.

The root causes of the recession have been explored by the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job and the recent HBO docudrama Too Big to Fail, and Jason Reitman's Up in the Air famously garnished its personal-crisis narrative with the testimony of real fired people. But few features have tackled the recession as directly as The Company Men. And in many ways, its treatment of the collapse recalls the kid-gloves approach many domestic dramas took to rehashing the bad news of the Iraq war: Overly conscientious about tapping into populist outrage, films such as In the Valley of Elah and Stop-Loss possessed all the personality of an opinion poll.

The Company Men—which, perhaps predictably, didn't perform at the box office (it grossed just under $4.5 million domestically, and a tenth of that abroad)—features its share of unemployment catharsis: Affleck's character, for example, finds it soothing to leave nasty voice mails to the woman who fired him. But then the film gets to its agenda. Bobby's family scales back most dramatically, moving in with his parents as he takes a job hanging drywall with his brother-in-law (Kevin Costner); the Porsche-driving former salesman learns the value of blue-collar pursuits he had previously turned his nose up at. Wells also channels populist outrage about executive pay (Craig T. Nelson's CEO is said to make 700 times more than the average GTX employee) and has his characters wax nostalgic about the days when all the welders in the local shipyard took home a good honest wage. The Company Men's distinction between good and bad business practices might best be summed up by two companies' taste in interior design: The behemoth GTX headquarters are sleekly modern and thoroughly impersonal; after weighing his options in the wake of being fired, Gene McClary starts his own company, furnishing its modest storefront office with nautically themed antiques.

Though they aren't as explicitly about the financial crisis, two recent American independents nonetheless vividly dramatize workplace anxieties instead of merely endorsing kinder, gentler corporate decision making—perhaps pointing the way toward more advanced cinematic reckonings with the downturn and its aftermath. In Miguel Arteta's comedy Cedar Rapids, naive insurance agent Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) attends an annual convention in the city of the title; fearing he will be sacked if he doesn't bring home an award, Tim agrees to pay off the convention president. He later extricates himself from the situation with the help of his colleagues, a support network made up of his putative competition. Writer-director Dan Rush's more serious Everything Must Go, currently in theaters, follows a freshly fired salesman (Will Ferrell) whose wife has locked him out of his house and left, leaving all of his belongings strewn about the front lawn. With his life turned inside out, he's driven to drink, until there's not enough money left in his pocket to buy beer at the mini-mart. At that point, he organizes a therapeutic yard sale. None of The Company Men's executives so heartbreakingly scrape the bottom of their bank accounts.

Cedar Rapids is chiefly about friendship and personal integrity, and Everything Must Go tells the more slightly surreal story of how one man's personal and professional downward spiral turns into a full-blown existential crisis. But both films portray the the anxiety surrounding values and self-worth brought on by a climate of belt-tightening and endangered jobs, and they both do so with more depth than The Company Men—suggesting that the economy might be a more meaningful presence when it stays in the background, rather than being effectively turned into a character itself.