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The Company Men (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Run Time 109 minutes.

Not for children.

This is an always timely story of a corporate tyrant who wants to pad his net worth by increasing the value of his company by “downsizing,” that is, firing everyone he can to reduce the payroll costs and increase his bottom line.

The film is well-written and wonderfully acted. James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) is the CEO of GTX, a conglomerate. Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) is his second in command and former college roommate. Phil Wooward (Chris Cooper) works for Gene. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is a sales manager down the line a bit. All become victims of Salinger’s avaricious quest to get as much money as he can. His solution to raising the company’s earnings is to downsize, so instructs Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) to fire a whole bunch of people. The first to get the ax is Bobby, and the movie is mostly told from his POV.

The action taken by Salinger is pretty commonplace. The late Steve Ross, a hero to lots of Captains of Industry, was a particularly heartless tyrant in his avarice. In 1990 he fired lots of employees, including 605 magazine workers in a “cost-cutting measure” and then took compensation of $78 million, including a huge bonus. If he had paid himself, let’s say $25 million less, it would have left the company with enough money to pay each of the fired workers over $41,000 that year, which was good money in 1990. But he was unmoved. The people were dumped and he cashed his paycheck. All the while, like Salinger, he was planning a 2.8 million square foot office complex in Columbus Circle.

An even more current parallel is Ray Irani, who took over as the boss of Occidental Petroleum in 1990, after longtime chief executive Armand Hammer died. Hammer always made sure his company paid a large dividend to his shareholders. Irani reversed that when he took over. He cut the dividend substantially. His take from the company was often criticized as excessive, totaling over $124 million from 2001-2005, according to Forbes magazine. In 2006 alone his total compensation exceeded a $460,000,000, while shareholders suffered with little current return on their investment. Demands by shareholders to increase the dividend left Irani unmoved. I don’t know if Wells based this film on Ross, or if he has even heard of Irani, but the parallel with Ross is striking.

This film is written and directed by John Wells, who contributed mightily to The West Wing and reflects his typically Hollywood political leanings, mostly in the mixed morality. McClary cheats flagrantly on his wife with Wilcox. In Wells’ view being a corporate tyrant like Salinger who abuses his employees to pad his remuneration is a cardinal sin, but cheating on your wife, like McClary, and being the other woman in breaking up a marriage, like Wilcox, are just par for the course. McClary is portrayed sympathetically as a hero, despite his blatant and cruel infidelity.

While all the acting is superb, the one who stood out for me was RoseMarie DeWitt, who plays Bobby’s commonsense wife, Maggie. However, there was one scene that needed an expert advisor. Bobby goes to the driving range and there is a scene of him hitting golf balls. Bobby is supposed to be an avid golfer. Unfortunately, Affleck has apparently never played golf because every time he takes a backswing, he bends his left arm drastically. One of the first things you learn when you play golf is not to bend your left arm (assuming you are swinging righthanded, which Affleck was). Some great players, but not many, bend their left elbow, like Fred Couples, but they are able to readjust on a repeating basis, and usually make up for this with other excellent features in their swing, like tempo, balance, repetitive practice, etc. A normal hack like Affleck could never get away with it. Pretty sloppy that nobody caught this.

That’s a minor criticism, but pointing out things like this is what they pay me for. Affleck’s defective golf swing certainly doesn’t spoil an entertaining movie about a horrible human weakness in the capitalistic system.

January 19, 2011