Monday, January 25, 2010

The Company Men

Genre: Drama
Premise: Three corporate men must deal with the specific challenges of getting laid off during a recession.
About: The Company Men debuted at Sundance with many impressed smiles, despite its downbeat subject matter. Many are calling it, “The film Up In The Air should’ve been.” Man, are we already committing verbal terrorism on the 37,000 foot Clooney vehicle? Well, I certainly had problems with it, but this isn’t the time or the place to get into that. The Company Men stars Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck, and Kevin Costner. Its writer, John Wells, is also its director. Wells has spent the majority of his career executive producing such films as Infamous, One Hour Photo, I’m Not There, and over a dozen more. He’s also written and produced a ton of TV, including that tiny passing fad on NBC known as ER. This is his first feature writing and directing project.
Writer: John Wells
Details: 120 pages (January 2, 2009 draft)

Affleck will play Bobby

Being an executive producer for over a decade, I’m betting John Wells has read a thousand scripts. Looking through his resume, the man clearly thrives on risky independent fare, and you have to respect him for it, because producing films that sunbathe on the indie circuit more often leaves you with a bright red sunburn (both literally and in the old bank account) than a bronzy head-turning tan. I suppose residuals from ER even it all out though. That pedigree of limitless TV work, and not just reading tons of scripts, but reading tons of scripts that actually strive to be different and good, gives Wells a huge advantage on his first trip to the big screen as a writer-director.

I have no idea if this is Wells' first feature script or simply the first one he's done something with, but The Company Men suffers from a technical style that, combined with its technical subject matter, makes for a tough read. As always, it should be noted that this is a writer-director script, which means he's writing it just as much for himself as for others (namely actors he's trying to lure). Combine that with the fact that this seems to be a shooting draft, and I'm prepared to excuse at least some of the clinical storytelling. Still, there's so little warmth, in both the style and subject matter here, that I felt it difficult to connect with the material.

The Company Men follows three employees on different rungs of the company ladder. There’s Bobby, the 30 year old “corporate warrior” with the pretty wife, the two kids, the mortgage, the Porsche, and the membership at the most expensive country club in town. There’s Phil, the aging “Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross” type whose difficulty keeping up with current trends may be why he can’t pull in the same mega-deals he used to, and then there’s Gene, one of the few corporate men who still has a heart, trying to save as many employees as he can, at the expense of the bottom line.

Jones will play Gene

All of these men work for a huge company called GTX, a sort of “does-it-all” super-corporation whose divisions are vague enough that I can’t remember any of them. This is one of the first things that turned me off of The Company Men. The company, in its vagueness, obviously acts as a stand-in for every mega-corporation in the U.S.A. Which would’ve been fine, except we spend an enormous amount of time discussing the boring specifics of how the company operates and what's going on inside of it. I wasn’t sure if I was reading a screenplay or hanging out with Warren Buffet.

When the script gets hunkered down in this discussion about stock shares and sub-divisions and conglomerate theories, it almost enters the realm of anti-entertainment. I didn't understand any of it which means I had to work twice as hard to enjoy the story. And the problem is that Phil and Gene's stories through the first half of the screenplay are stuck inside this world. So it's nearly impossible to get into them.

The good news is that the script has a saving grace. And that grace is in the man who saved our planet from an asteroid. Or at least, the actor who's playing that part saved us. Bobby's (Ben Affleck) story isn't about stock shares or consulting tactics or board room politics. It’s simply about a guy with a family and a mortgage who loses his 120,000 dollar a year job and quickly begins to freak the fuck out when he realizes he may not find another one. Every time we’re with Bobby the script feels like it's been lifted out of molasses, because it becomes about something. Bobby hasn't hit any roadblocks in his life before this. He's one of those people who assumed the good life would just keep on being good. So when his shiny cars are threatened, when his country club membership is threatened, when the very bed he sleeps in is threatened, he refuses to accept it. He goes into Stage 4 denial and simply keeps on living the life he's used to living. But it doesn't last. It can't last. And watching his meltdown is depressing but also the most entertaining part of the script.

Costner will play Phil (now "Jack")

Unfortunately, Bobby only pops up every once in awhile, his story getting wedged between Phil and Gene's redundant boardroom politics and backroom parties. And we have to tread through all that molasses to find that little bottle Bobby's hiding in again, if only for a few minutes or a couple of scenes. Eventually, the Gene and Phil storylines take on a less technical tone, and focus more on the personal side of their journeys, and while it's a desperately welcome change, it's too little too late. I had a hard time caring by that point.

The weird thing is, I didn’t feel much sympathy for any of these characters, despite their sympathetic situations. I mean, it’s not like these are high-school flunkies working at Wal-Mart, getting fired from the only job they know how to do. That, to me, is the true definition of a catastrophe. These men all have nice houses, ‘59 Corvettes, and VIP memberships at every establishment in town. I mean, they’re pissed at their company’s outrageous overspending which resulted in their termination. But they’re just as guilty, lavishly overspending in every aspect of their own lives. Who makes 120 grand, 300 hundred grand, 1 million dollars a year, and isn’t smart enough to put a big chunk of it away in case things get bad? And maybe that’s what Wells is trying to say. That we all live above our means and haven't shit-proofed enough of our fans. But I wanted to root for these characters and their stupidity gave me enough pause to think twice about it.

I guess people are now saying that Up In The Air is “The Company Men for Dummies.” But I’d switch that around. I’d say The Company Men is “Up in the Air For Rocket Scientists.” It’s so entrenched in corporate-speak and CNBC’isms and the technical details of what’s happening at the top, that unless you’re familiar with that world, it’s a tough story to get lost in. It’ll be interesting to see if the movie stresses those things, or focuses more on the personal aspect, which is the where the focus should be.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The Company Men was a huge reminder of how important it is to focus on your characters and their relationships. Whatever subject matter you choose to tell your story in, it’s obviously important to give us enough of the details that it feels authentic. But if you go overboard, you’re going to lose your general audience, the ones who don’t know enough to be able to follow the specifics of that subject matter. Never forget that the thing your audience cares about is your characters’ journey. We don’t walk out of a theater remembering how GTX fucked over Phil by stonewalling his stockyard division by cutting a secret deal with the Koreans. That’s not what stays with us. What stays with us is an embarrassed Phil having to tell his daughter she can’t go on her school trip to Italy because he can’t afford it. Never forget that. It’s always about the characters.