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The Company Men

An economic downturn upends three corporate Americans in this redemptive recession drama

Men struggle to regain work — and their masculinity — after being laid off in The Company Men.

In the wake of 2010’s unyielding recession and the threat of a takeover, conglomerate GTX decides to secure the company’s bottom line by laying off thousands of workers.

GTX doesn’t see people. It sees falling profits and nervous investors. By trimming non-essential jobs, the CEOs can keep their private jets, $500 lunches and mahogany-trimmed offices while also fending off corporate raiders.

Turns out, most laid-off people believe their jobs are essential. As the cuts go deeper in the company, three men suffer the humiliation of losing their job without stable financial prospects.

Arrogant go-getter Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck: The Town) enjoys living in denial, spending money that he doesn’t have in a desperate attempt to appear successful. During his wrongheaded attempt to stick it to GTX for firing him, Bobby manages to alienate anyone who might consider giving him a job. With creditors clamoring over the ruins of his posh lifestyle, he suffers the ultimate humiliation: taking a menial carpenter’s assistant job, working for brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner: The New Daughter).

Life isn’t faring any better for graying executive Phil Woodward (Christ Cooper: Remember Me), who missed the first few rounds of layoffs only to be let go only after his one-time co-workers flooded the job market. Phil worked from the factory floor up to a corner office, which makes a great story, but it doesn’t make him competitive in a young-man’s market. Desperate to find a new job before his college-bound daughters’ tuition bills arrive, he is forced to the indignity of dying his hair brown to look younger and more employable.

Company co-founder Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones: In the Electric Mist) can’t abide the cuts and mouths off to his best friend, GTX’s CEO. He’s given a golden parachute and stock options — not exactly dire straits — but his own sense of guilt and boredom with home-life eat away at him.

The Company Men’s strength is in its actors. Jones, Affleck and Cooper all do an admirable job slogging through the hellish corporate job market. Cooper is especially poignant as a man who lived the American dream of working toward success only to lose everything because of a bean counter’s whim. As the men struggle to support their families and reclaim their self worth, you feel the turmoil and uncertainty of their day-to-day lives.

Women, when they appear on screen, are merely a form of support or another burden to our heroes. This could be annoying to a female reviewer, but The Company Men makes it clear — even in the title — that it’s concerned with the emasculation men suffer when they lose a job. Corporate women’s woes will have to wait for the sequel.

The real problem in The Company Men is the characterization of good versus evil — or corporate versus blue collar. Thirty minutes into the movie, I could tell whether a character was good by looking at his wardrobe. Did he own a flannel shirt? If so, this was salt-of-the-earth and a helluva guy. If someone showed up in an expensive suit, he had arrived to steal more from the little guy. If not for a surprisingly wry performance from Costner, this dichotomy could have run the movie down.

The interlocking vignettes don’t spare you the depression and anxiety of financial troubles. But unlike some recent recession-era films, The Company Men doesn’t wallow in misery. The film offers a dim but realistic hope, without making the leap to a Disney ending.

This film has faith in America and in those willing to work. And it’s contagious. The Company Men might not be the best film about the recession, but it’s the best one for anyone who’s entering the job market.

Good Drama • R • 104 mins.