To research his new movie, “The Company Men,” Director John Wells visited outplacement centers and interviewed hundreds of job seekers. Their stories are the movie.
Ben Affleck’s expression is a mixture of dejection, despair and pained embarrassment as he looks around the crowded boardroom. “Up! Up! Up! Let’s go! This is called The ‘Tiger.’ We do it when we need to get our energy up.” The motivational chant is led by a Suze Orman look-alike dressed in a chic black pantsuit. The participants, all in business attire, rise from their chairs. “Come on, I know you are sitting around feeling sorry for yourselves,” she continues, her voice building in power. “I — will — win. Why? Because I have faith, courage, enthusiasm! Good!” Affleck stands and joins the rest of the group in the chant, a sheepish smile spreading over his face.
In ” The Company Men,” Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a sales executive who is one of the first to lose his job at Boston conglomerate GTX when hundreds of employees are laid off in a consolidation decision designed to appease shareholders. Brash and self-assured, Bobby regards himself as a top-flight company man, a winner with all the charm and the drive necessary to soar to the upper echelons of management. So when he finds himself unemployed he is initially incredulous but assumes that it will be only a matter of days before he’ll secure another high-paying position.
As part of his severance package, Bobby is offered career search assistance at an external job placement center. The outplacement services — which include advice on resume writing, networking tips and pep talks — are provided in a building that in many ways mirrors Bobby’s previous work environment, including cubicles for laid-off workers from middle management and corner offices with nice views for former VPs or CFOs.
“These people come in looking like they have just been in a major automobile accident. I think of myself as a physical therapist. I go into the room right after someone comes out of major surgery and say: ‘Get out of that bed and you have got to start walking. I know it is painful. I know you don’t want to. Get up and walk.’ That is how I perceive myself.” This was the explanation given to John Wells, the director of “The Company Men,” by the motivational trainer he met at an outplacement center while researching his film. “I visited them. I didn’t make that chant up,” the 54-year-old writer-producer-director said. “The Tiger chant is something I saw them do in Los Angeles. [The trainer] was very bright and savvy. Afterwards, I said to her: ‘Don’t you feel vaguely ridiculous doing that?’ And she said, ‘Oh, yeah. It is completely ridiculous but you don’t understand. These people are in shock.’ ”
Look Like Success
Bobby’s shock turns to anger and then shame. “I need to look successful,” he tells his wife (played by Rosemarie DeWitt). “I can’t just look like another a–hole with a resume !” To which she replies: “You are another a–hole with a resume!” Her wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee plea to him is ignored. Bobby tries to maintain his plush suburban dream, continuing to play golf at his country club and refusing to tell family and friends that he has lost his job.
“I think this is particular to American men and our society,” Wells said. “We define ourselves through our work. Who we are is based on what we do and how much money we make.” He points out that many white-collar workers are defined by appearances: “I am successful because you see I am successful.”
“The Company Men,” it would seem, is tailor-made to reflect the soaring job losses and crippling unemployment of our times, but the movie was, in fact, conceptualized over 10 years ago. The impetus for Wells to write the script was rooted in the boom and bust of the dot.com years in the late ’90s. Wells’ brother-in-law, along with many others, lost his job at the time, and while the script is not his story it inspired Wells to dig deeper into the repercussions of job loss. Wells also interviewed several hundred people in researching the experience of job loss before and during production.
“I talked to men who had been vice presidents. I talked to men who were doing all kinds of service jobs, like managing a Chuck E. Cheese because they still wanted to work, to be useful but there was no opportunity for them,” he recalls. He received more than two thousand responses when he posted solicitations in chat rooms, requesting anecdotes about being laid off. At the time he had not heard about outplacement services.
Writing the Last Recession
Wells drafted a script incorporating all he’d learned but by the time he submitted it to Warner Bros., the mini-recession at the end of the last millennium had faded. In 2007 he worked on a substantial rewrite of his script. “Each recession has its own individual motor in the way in which it works. I rewrote it assuming that by the time we did it, it would be a historical document. And clearly we are still in the midst of it. Now, we’ve got tens of millions of people who have experienced unemployment. We do test screenings and at the end we always ask how many people have had this personally happen to them or someone in their immediate family or a close friend and everybody’s hand goes up. Everybody’s going through it.”
“And there are people who are being completely left behind,” Wells observes. “In this country, the underemployed is a huge statistic that nobody really talks about, with many making 40 or 50 percent of what they did before, doing jobs that are substantially below their experience level. They are just happy to have a job.”
The current recession, Wells believes, is going to have a much longer-lasting effect than the impact of the economic downturn that inspired his script. “There is a huge portion of older workers — who aren’t particularly that old — who still have a lot to give but are not going to find new places in this economy, post-recession.”
In the Midst of Something Substantial
“The Company Men”, it could be argued, has elements of a cautionary tale. When Bobby is fired, he is overextended on his credit cards and within months he is struggling to pay the mortgage on his house. Yet he chooses to ignore these realities and continues to try to keep up with the Joneses.
“I think that we are in the midst of something substantial changing in the way in which we perceive our financial security as a nation,” Wells said. “It has happened to too many people. In the short term it is tougher for the economy but in the long term it is better for everybody involved.” Wells points out that his grandparents and parents had been very affected by the Great Depression and made decisions about their finances and jobs based on their experience of that era: “I think that my generation, and the people who are younger than I am, have ignored that because we haven’t really had that experience.”
Ben Affleck’s character, Bobby, is written with a certain amount of arrogance for his own invincibility, Wells said. “I don’t overstate it but I think there is a bit of that in how we perceive ourselves as Americans. We make decisions that we shouldn’t make based on this sense that everything is going to go our way. That is not particularly healthy for any individual or for the country. We can’t be this overextended.”
He was attracted to the notion of a character like Bobby “whom you sort of don’t really like but you come to feel sympathy for the human situation that he is in. I think that there are many more people out there that are versions of Bobby’s character. It can be anybody who was making $50,000 or $150,000 to $200,000, a group of people that have had to completely rethink what their future is going to be. And that is a huge portion of the population.”
Bobby eventually learns to abandon his arrogant attitude and reorder his personal and career priorities. Wells notes that in his research he realized that people who found themselves out of work eventually learned important life lessons through the hardship they faced: “You discovered who your friends were. You saw your family gather around you. You discovered that your children didn’t really care so much what you do but who you are. The film is trying to get at the journey that we go through in difficult times. It’s not necessarily easy and not necessarily better in many senses of the definition. But it is uplifting. And you end up stronger.”