Awards fodder: A somewhat electric ‘Company’

You have to pull yourself back when watching ‘The Company Men.’ Because of its timely topic, it’s too easy to fault it for what it’s not than to appreciate it for what it is.

Since most of us are still feeling the sting — in one way or another — of the current recession, we want “The Company Men” to encapsulate all the fears and frustrations of all whom it has affected. This would result in some stock market “Crash,” which would have been narratively disastrous.

“Men” slices its story into a narrow sliver: corporate workers of a manufacturing conglomerate who are dropped in a few rounds of belt-tightening within the company. Their subsequent fallout is woven into the film’s narrative, as we watch how each is affected and their attempts to answer the question: “What next?”

The youngest is Bobby Walker (played by Ben Affleck), a climber whose enjoyed the comfortable perks of his profession: a Porsche, spacious suburban home and membership at the local golf course. After the ax falls, he trudges to a job placement facility daily, but continues to live life on his former paycheck, afraid to let his social status slide collaterally.

Tommy Lee Jones is perhaps given the film’s meatiest role as Gene McClary, a co-founder of the business who is pushed out by his money-hungry buddy/boss, played by Craig T. Nelson. Gene has grown weary of the luxuries of his job, but his wife certainly has it. This leads him to dip his pen in the company ink, carrying on an affair with an HR exec (played by the always-watchable Maria Bello).

But perhaps the film’s most fascinating lead character — and the one filmmakers spend the least time with — is Phil Woodward (played by Chris Cooper). Phil’s a man who has worked his way from the bottom to the executive level of the company, only to be tossed aside when he’s too young to retire, but too old to compete with the young upstarts.

Here’s a man who is the embodiment of the American Dream: someone who toiled his way to the top, and who now has to hide half his story for the sake of marketability. Cooper, as always, carefully crafts the character, but before we know it, he has vanished without us really spending much time with his struggles.

We do, however, get glimpses of all the humiliations, missed opportunities and pride-swallowing situations that are most likely shared by many during this economic downturn. They feel raw and real, predominantly because of the strength of its leads.

But don’t pass “Company Men” off as a solemn trudge through heartbreak and rejection. There are moments of hope and humanity throughout, most with Bobby and his family, including his blue-collar brother-in-law (played by Kevin Costner) who has little sympathy for the starched-shirt set.

And Jones gets to deliver some stick-it-to-the-man zingers that serve as employee wish-fulfillment. He is a master at playing haunted men, his eyes sagging in pain, even when he’s jovial. As an exec who watches his dream decay, he allows us to sympathize with his struggles and applaud his barbs.

Jones, along without the rest of the cast, is what lifts “The Company Men” from its too-tidy story. They are all able to convey subtleties left out of the script and help this bitter pill of a subject go down smoothly.

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