Unemployment has become such an omnipresent concern since 2008’s economic nose-dive that even American movies, with their propensity for escapism, can’t ignore the subject. Trouble is, it’s hard to craft a good unemployment drama, because helplessness isn’t especially dramatic. Up in the Air was a qualified success, but that film focused on the folks doing the firing, with the terminated appearing mostly as weeping or livid extras. Now along comes The Company Men, the first feature from TV honcho John Wells (ER, The West Wing), which aims to depict the woes of the dispossessed but can’t think of much to say except the obvious: Losing your job sucks.
Rather than attempt to depict a multicultural cross-section of the American populace, Wells, for better and worse, focuses exclusively on the plight of the once-wealthy white-collar business exec. When manufacturing concern GTX decides to slash its workforce, its conscientious co-founder (Tommy Lee Jones) struggles in vain to save the positions of two underlings, even as he carries on an affair with the cold functionary (Maria Bello) who wields the ax. The older of the two (Chris Cooper) finds himself obliged to shave a decade or more from his résumé, lest he seem too old to be employable. The younger (Ben Affleck), to his initial shame, is forced to do menial labor for his salt-of-the-earth brother-in-law (Kevin Costner), a building contractor.
The Company Men is one of those sincere, earnest independent films in which no individual element seems jarringly wrong, but the movie as a whole comes across as vaguely pointless. Wells has clearly done his research, and anyone who’s been through this demoralizing experience will get some catharsis from the film’s accurate depiction of outplacement centers and humiliating job interviews. The cast, too, is uniformly solid, apart from Costner’s usual difficulty with accents (Boston here); Rosemarie DeWitt, in particular, does miracles with the stock role of Affleck’s understanding wife. But the movie has no original ideas or angles—no perspective on unemployment that provokes any emotion other than placid sympathy. It’s an honorable effort, but it’s also as expendable as its subjects.