There was a time, in the 1970s, when stories of middle-class alienation and dreamers struggling to get ahead were invariably set in New York. Lately, such accounts of white- and blue-collar angst have moved 200 miles up I-95 to the Boston suburbs, where the fight to survive isn’t exclusively the domain of street hustlers and last-chance athletes.
In “The Company Men,” it’s the fight waged by Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a corporate hotshot, husband and father who falls victim to downsizing, and sees his comfy lifestyle disappear, taking with it his handsome home and golf-club membership. It is also the demoralizing battle facing Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a weary dinosaur who is hopelessly unsuited to unemployment.
These are not the daring outlaws of Affleck’s “The Town,” another Bay State bedtime story. No less desperate, they are accustomed to a higher standard of living, and woefully unprepared to lose it.
Only Kevin Costner’s unpretentious carpenter, Jack — who never aspires to compete in the rat race, and whose Boston accent is one of the more dubious in recent memory — represents the other America.
But that is the most affecting lesson of “Men,” written and directed by John Wells, the executive producer of TV’s “Southland.”
In the nation’s time of economic distress, when loyal workers may be reduced to so many numbers on a spreadsheet, the corporate climate seems more cutthroat than ever. Nobody is safe.
It might be easier to sympathize with men less married to material comforts than Bobby and Phil — and, for that matter, their erstwhile boss Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), who nostalgically laments the lack of honor in business even as his subordinates are shown the door.
But much as they’ve stretched themselves thin, their comeuppance seems undeserved. We take no pleasure from it.
How their stories play out is hardly surprising — tragedy seems as assured as the movie’s final glimmer of hope — and Gene’s conclusion that the board room is no longer populated by ethical men seems almost quaint.
“Men” is neither as gritty nor as unsentimental as David Mamet’s more uncompromising assessment of office politics, “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
That doesn’t mean there is no place for Wells’ vision, which has its own resonance, or for the comforting presence of Cooper and especially Jones, whose world-weariness often carries with it a welcome undercurrent of humor.
Gene’s story may seem more abbreviated than the rest, but it’s never anything less than a pleasure to watch Tommy Lee play out his living definition of hangdog.
Starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Maria Bello, Craig T. Nelson
Written and directed by John Wells
Running time 1 hour 49 minutes