Released at a time when unemployment levels are close to their highest in two decades, John Wells' The Company Men tries to surf a zeitgeist wave all the way to relevancy, but by focusing on the trials and tribulations of millionaires instead of Joe Average, the movie plays like an extended insult to those hit hardest by the rough economic climate. And as if that weren't enough, Kevin Costner attempts a "Bah-stan" accent.
The movie stars Ben Affleck as Bobby Walker, an affluent junior executive at a company where he's built a strong mentor/protégé relationship with senior executive Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). But when the firm needs to downsize, Gene can't keep Bobby's head off the chopping block. Out of work for much longer than he expected, Bobby starts selling off the expensive trappings of the good life that he and his family have acquired (he recognizes how bad it's gotten when he learns his moody teenage son is upset with him because -- GASP! -- the Xbox had to be sold) and ends up taking a job working construction for his brother-in-law (Costner).
The layoffs and firings send Gene into an existential crisis -- he realizes his company doesn't actually make anything anymore, they just shift numbers around a ledger -- and the only respite he can find from his dead marriage and unsatisfying job is in the bed of his mistress (Maria Bello), the woman whom his company eventually hires to coordinate yet another round of downsizing.
Without Tommy Lee Jones' long, dour face, The Company Men would be unendurable. He's the only member of the cast able to earn our sympathies, mostly because his weariness seems authentic -- although that's possibly a result of realizing what a bad movie he's in.
What's missing from the movie is a sense of either gallows humor or outrage. Neither Wells' screenplay nor his direction makes the point that these guys are not only responsible for their own undoing, but they're also responsible for the larger economic meltdown. He makes them victims pure and simple, especially Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), another senior executive who suffers a complete and total breakdown in the face of joblessness. Conceived like a tragic character, Phil instead becomes the poster boy for just about everything wrong with The Company Men -- we're supposed to feel terrible that he's lost his fortune, but by all appearances he should be able to retire gracefully if only he'd lived within his seemingly overabundant means.
Since that uncomfortable truth is entirely ignored, the whole movie mutates into a tone-deaf elegy for fat-cat corporate execs. The movie isn't really about learning to get by with less, or understanding that a fair wage for a hard day of physical labor is spiritually rewarding. No, The Company Men exists for no other reason than to remind rich white guys that they can suffer just as much as the working-class they used to employ.