‘Company Men’ a character study in masculinity

Posted Jan. 19, 2011, at 1:16 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

In Theaters

THE COMPANY MEN, written and directed by John Wells, 114 minutes, rated R.

It’s safe to say that for the majority of Americans, we give our lives to our jobs.

All that’s in it for some is a paycheck and the knowledge that the bills will be paid that month and that food will go on the table. At this point in our unstable economy, that’s not a bad trade-off, especially considering the state of the rest of the world — and that many who live in our own backyards aren’t nearly as lucky.

But for other Americans, those who are more fortunate and who also work hard, having the right education and the right job sometimes leads to meadows of wealth and security, promise and prestige — and, for some, even a Porsche.

At least that’s the case for Ben Affleck’s Bobby Walker, a 37-year-old executive at GTX who makes a fat salary, lives in a massive Boston home and who is, in a sense, the master of his own universe until the planets align against him and he loses his job.

Turns out, Bobby is a victim of corporate downsizing. Since he’s nothing if not arrogant, he believes that soon he’ll just land another job with similar pay and that will be that. At least his wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), isn’t out of touch. She has paid attention to the news and immediately initiates a budget. Meanwhile, Bobby remains in another world, one in which he tries to keep up a front that he’s still on top because, in his eyes, he must appear successful if he’s going to be successful.

And so he makes the initial rounds in trying to find work. He dresses smartly. He looks good behind the Porsche. But as days turn into weeks and weeks into months, Bobby is struck by the fact that he might not find work. People aren’t hiring like they used to and $160,000 salaries aren’t as common as they once were.

Although Bobby always has felt superior to Maggie’s brother (Kevin Costner), it’s nevertheless that brother who offers Bobby a paycheck in exchange for manual labor.

Realizing how vulnerable he is humanizes Bobby, as you’d expect, particularly when two of his superiors at GTX are fired, which Bobby never thought possible given their years with the corporation.

The men are Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), whose best friend owns the company and takes home a $22 million salary, and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who has worked for GTX for 30 years and knows nothing beyond its walls. Like Gene, Phil’s retirement isn’t imminent. So, what is he to do now? When one headhunter suggests he dye his hair black, the look on Phil’s face suggests his future was just dipped in bleak.

Humiliation burns through “The Company Men,” which director John Wells based on his own script. In a way, the film is sort of the flip side of last year’s “Up in the Air,” in which George Clooney played a man whose job it was to fire people. In that movie, we saw his coldness give way to personal struggle and self-reflection. In this movie, we see the after-effects and the trauma that come from being fired. In a way, they are perfect companion movies.

In the wrong hands, “The Company Men” could have slipped into a slop of sentiment, but for the most part, Wells refuses to allow his movie to go there. This is, first and foremost, a movie about men, and what, in Wells’ eyes, it means to be a man in these difficult times. His answer rests in a gamut of emotions. He shatters and embraces his share of cliches, slips in a surprise and then offers a measure of hope — as well as great risk — when one character offers an alternative to the lives they’re living now.

With “The Town” in his back pocket, Affleck has had a great year. But as good as he is here, the real reason to see the movie is for Cooper and especially for Jones, whose weathered face grounds the movie with a sadness that’s almost palpable given the betrayal at hand, not to mention the corporate greed sinking so many to their knees. Grade: B+

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On DVD and Blu-ray disc

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, directed by Michael Gondry, written by Charlie Kaufman, 108 minutes, rated R.

What’s so captivating about Michael Gondry’s 2004 movie, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” just out on Blu-ray disc, is its provocative premise.

Imagine if you could permanently erase someone from your memory — perhaps a former lover who jilted you, a trusted friend who wronged you or a childhood bully who humiliated you.

With those people no longer clouding your thoughts and causing you emotional pain, you would essentially be free of them forever, allegedly living a happier life basking in the eternal sunshine of your newly spotless mind.

In the heat of the moment, such a possibility would undoubtedly be tempting to some. I mean, imagine the power of entering a crowded doctor’s office and declaring that you’d like to delete Jane — forever! Or that memories of an abusive parent will no longer do.

Still, since who we are is all that we have experienced, is it wise to remove those negative elements from which we have learned so much? A caveat of undergoing this procedure is that you’re also erasing any good memories you might have had with that person. Is that wise? And what are the ramifications should you do so?

The movie, which Gondry based on Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay, considers the ramifications, with Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as the vehicles that drive them.

In the movie, Carrey and Winslet are Joel and Clementine, two polar opposites who meet by chance on a train, fall in love, and then fall out of it over the course of their relationship. When Clementine elects to erase Joel from her memory, he learns about it, visits her doctor (Tom Wilkinson) and promptly requests out of spite that she also be deleted from his memory.

But all isn’t so easy when it comes to matters of love and human relationships, and the filmmakers know this. So, what unfolds here is dense, complex and moving, particularly when it occurs to Joel during the procedure that he might be making a grave mistake. If Clementine evaporates from his memories, so does the knowledge that he once had love in his life. And isn’t that worth always knowing, even if the relationship ended badly?

Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst co-star, but they add only peripheral interest. This show belongs to Carrey and Winslet, who find in the trappings of Joel’s subconscious not only two strong performances, but reasons to review the past to find what really matters — the potentially brighter end that might accompany it. Grade: A-

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s film reviews appear Mondays in Lifestyle, and his video movie previews appear Wednesdays in the Lifestyle section of bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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