Published January 25, 2010
The recession has hit Ben Affleck. He's out of work, saying goodbye to his beloved Porsche, losing his home, stuck moving back in with his parents.
Affleck stars in "The Company Men," a Sundance Film Festival premiere in which he plays a man who loses all the material wealth he has accumulated after his high-paying job as a sales executive is eliminated in a round of cutbacks at his firm.
His character learns like many unemployed Americans that along with the stuff, he has lost a big part of his identity when his job goes away.
"It's sort of an existential crisis, and that's almost as bad as sort of, `All right, well where's my money going to come from?"' Affleck said. "This sort of shame and difficulty in saying, `Well, what am I? Well, I'm not really this. I can't really say I'm X if I'm not making money at it."'
"The Company Men" is kind of the flipside of George Clooney and Jason Reitman's recession tale "Up in the Air," which includes segments of real unemployed workers reflecting on their situation.
In that film, Clooney plays the hitman, the guy who goes around firing people at downsizing companies. "The Company Men" centers on the people losing their jobs.
"I tell people who ask me about it that if you were interested in those people that Jason Reitman interviewed and put into the film who really lost their jobs, that this movie begins as they walk out of that room. This movie is really about what happened to those people," said John Wells, the man behind "ER" and "The West Wing," who makes his feature-film writing and directing debut on "The Company Men."
The film draws its inspiration from Wells' own family. His sister's husband lost a comfortable executive job after the Internet bubble burst. They lost their home and wound up moving in with Wells' parents for a time.
Wells began developing the story then, but once the economy recovered, the idea was shelved because it no longer seemed relevant. As the economy tanked in 2008, he resurrected the idea, and the film came together quickly.
"When I got the script, I thought, wow, John really had his finger on the pulse of what's going on. He must have written it five minutes ago," said Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Affleck's wife.
"The Company Men" co-stars Tommy Lee Jones as a top corporate executive agonizing over how his company callously casts off workers to boost share prices. Kevin Costner plays Affleck's blue-collar brother-in-law, Chris Cooper, a veteran executive who is among the casualties, and Maria Bello takes on the Clooney function, delivering the bad news to fired workers.
The movie focuses on people who have it all -- gorgeous homes, the latest appliances, memberships at swanky country clubs. When they lose that excess, they are forced to re-examine their values, discovering that the things they surrounded themselves with were inconsequential compared to the family and friends they had neglected amid the corporate steeplechase.
"The film invites us to ask ourselves for a moment how big a deal it is to go from a job that pays $160,000 a year to a job that pays $60,000 a year. How big a deal is it to give up your Porsche?" Jones said. "I don't think there's a single citizen in Haiti that wouldn't be happy to go to a job that pays $60,000 a year, or $6,000 a year. On the scale of things, this movie I think invites us to consider our materialism and the emotional and spiritual stakes that we put into it, and considers to some degree that that might be mistaken."