Film review: The Company Men

The film looks at the effect of the loss of jobs in the current economy, but from the point of view of the upper middle classes. It centers around the character played by Ben Affleck, a well-paid executive who suddenly loses his job as a result of his division in a conglomerate being shut down. The reasons for the shut down and layoffs are the usual: the top management of a manufacturing company shifts production overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor and tries to goose up its stock price (thus increasing their personal wealth via their stock options) by eliminating jobs to increase profits, especially laying off older workers who are paid more, all the while paying its chief executives high salaries and providing them with fancy offices, corporate jets, and other perks.

Also in the film are the always watchable veteran actors Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper as much older senior executives who also lose their jobs, the former because he tries to protest the lay-offs, especially of long-time employees like Cooper. The film looks at how they try to adjust to suddenly feeling useless, the shame they feel at their friends and neighbors and relatives knowing about their sudden drop in status, and the sting of not having calls returned and being rejected for job after job.

This is not a great film but it is worth seeing. Initially it is hard to feel any sympathy for the Affleck character who plays the role of a shallow yuppie jerk, living in a large suburban house, driving a Porsche, regularly playing golf at his country club, thinking that he is so good that the recession will not touch him and that he will be snapped up for a similar high-paying job immediately, and refusing to accept the fact that his new reduced circumstances may last a long time and require him to adjust to a much more modest lifestyle. He also looks down on his brother-in-law (Kevin Costner) who is self-employed as a home-builder who does much of the work himself and hires one or two people to help him. But Affleck manages to humanize this character so that you do eventually start feeling sorry for him.

Since I do not move around in such corporate or social circles, it was hard for me to get a sense of how realistic the situations and portrayals were. The firings of even the very senior executives seemed too abrupt and secretive to me. It also seemed odd that people who had earned so much money over such a long period did not seem to have sufficient savings or other reserves to ride out not having an income for a few months, so much so that they cannot even pay their children’s college tuition. Do such people actually blow almost their entire incomes living high on the hog, thinking that they will never face any setbacks in life?

The US is notorious for having a very low savings rate. I wrote in an earlier post about how 50% of the population are economically fragile, in that they would find it hard to lay their hands on $2,000 in 30 days if a sudden emergency should require it. I thought that this would apply to mostly the middle class and poorer who had less disposable income but this film suggests that this may extend to the more wealthy upper-middle class too. Maybe these people try too hard to emulate to the lifestyles of the people profiled in David Sirota’s “Such it up and cope” article and feel that a fancy house, a Porsche, country club membership, and fancy vacations are essentials, not luxuries, and thus spend as much as they make, if not more.

One interesting side note in the film was seeing how the executive outplacement system, which is a benefit offered to executives to ease the sting of being fired, works. It seems to be much like working in an office in that you are given a desk, a computer, a phone in a shared cubicle (and maybe a private office if you are a fired senior executive), plus some coaching on how to find a job, except that it is for a limited time and your job is to find a job.

Here’s the trailer.


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