Recession Blues: The Company Men and Larry Crowne

In Up in the Air, George Clooney flew around the US firing people*, and we were supposed to feel for him when his job function/life/credit rating was rendered obsolete by Skype. In The Company Men, Ben Affleck’s rich douchebag gets fired and is forced to sell his Porsche, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him. In Larry Crowne, nothing remotely entertaining happens to or with Tom Hanks for 98 minutes, and we’re supposed to sit there and be entertained by his painfully unfunny Dad-jokes.

While they may not prove to be among the very worst films of the year, two recent recession-era movies, The Company Men and Larry Crowne, are thoroughly unpalatable. The former has an excessively unlikeable protagonist—with whom, incredibly, we’re supposed to sympathise—while the latter’s lead character is so dull and simultaneously unbearably pleasant that it’s hard to believe anyone would wilfully subject themselves to being in his company.

The Company Men, TV producer John Wells’ directorial (and screenwriting) feature début, centres on a fictional ship-building conglomerate in the midst of a major round of corporate downsizing. The company’s CEO (Craig T. Nelson) sets in motion plans to fire hundreds of employees, from some 5,000-plus blue-collar ship-builders at plants across the country to salesmen, accountants, and other privileged white-collar bureaucrat paper-pushers of the upper echelons of the corporate sector. Words and phrases such as “consolidating divisions” and “necessary layoffs” are thrown around by the CEO and by mid-level boss Gene McClary (an enjoyable Tommy Lee Jones) as he fires his sales manager (and our protagonist) Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) and, later, as Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is also laid off.

The major problem with the film is that Wells—who helped bring E.R. to the small screen, and took over from Aaron Sorkin after the writer-creator left The West Wing in 2003, to its detriment—attempted, in earnest, to focus on the plight of the wealthy few when they’re let go from their jobs, rather than the similarly-fired ordinary majority who make the ships that the higher-ups toy with via columns of numbers on sheets of paper. Put simply, Bobby Walker is a rich asshole who arrogantly assumes he’ll never be out of a job. He drives a Porsche, lives in an outsized McMansion in a leafy exurb of Boston—replete, the opening credits exhibit, with a counter-top overflowing with useless (and probably unused) expensive kitchen appliances—and earns in excess of US$120,000 (not counting bonuses and considerable stock options). We’re supposed to feel sorry for him—or at the very least, somehow identify with his ‘suffering’—when he loses his job? Yeah, right. Oh, and his son has to sell his X-Box because Dad can’t afford to keep paying the online-gaming subscription fee. (Yes, this is an actual plot point. Boo-bloody-hoo.) The whole thing comes across as smug and arrogant.

It speaks volumes that the crowd I saw the film with weren’t taking it seriously: in a scene in which Tommy Lee Jones finds Chris Cooper’s character sitting in a bar in the middle of the day, he asks why he’s dressed for work and why he’d bought his briefcase with him. He replies that he hasn’t told his wife that he was fired, so he has to make it look like he’s going to work each day—not least so the neighbours don’t suspect anything. When he explained this, most of the people in the row in front of me laughed out loud. Now, either the filmmakers meant this as a joke (unlikely, given the gravity of much of the rest of the film, including a sequence that immediately follows the one I’ve just described) or they completely goofed the tone of the scene: the audience in my screening were so removed from the characters’ emotions that the only response the film was able to elicit from them was laughter. The only actual joke in the film, for the record, comes when Bobby tells an overweight woman who’s interviewing him that she should “probably lay off the diet soda.” Real original wit, that.

One thing that irked me the most—and something that possibly exemplifies his overall attitude during the filmmaking process—is his abuse of a song by The National called “Fake Empire.” There’s a cheap montage (of BAffleck & co. playing football in the rain after he’s had what he thought was a successful job interview) set to the song—except, if you know the song well enough you’ll notice that Wells has, in his supreme laziness, taken the instrumental guts of it and slowed them down, stretched them out to fit the thirty-second timeframe of the sequence. This deliberate butchering seldom happens in such a blatant fashion (or at least not in feature films), and it’s emblematic of the arrogance of the script/story as a whole (or maybe Wells as a person), I think. It’s bad enough that Aaron Zigman’s crappy score variously (and shamelessly) apes New Order, Washed Out, The Postal Service and a smattering of breezy mid-’70s FM radio folk-rock; Wells didn’t need to go overboard and cheapen one of the best tracks on Boxer, too.

The script is pitifully bad in parts, and barely serviceable otherwise. One scene has Jones’ boss and some of his minions staring at a TV screen covered in financial jargon and news-tickers: “What does it all mean?” says a confused, insignificant drone. “Nothing good,” comes Jones’ lackadaisical reply. The film tries (but fails) to humanise Bobby in its third act when he’s forced to help out his builder brother-in-law (an egregiously miscast Kevin Costner) by putting up GIB board for what he probably assumes is near minimum wage. Other moronic decisions include putting Rosemarie de Witt (Rachel Getting Married) in the role of Bobby’s wife, and having the film set in Boston which means she’s forced to affect a terrible accent. (Affleck’s accent is somehow worse here than it would be in his own The Town.) In case you’re wondering, everything works out for Bobby in the end: he starts up a new rival shipping company—a small-time, all-American concern—with some of Tommy Lee Jones’ money.

Larry Crowne doesn’t leave the same kind of foul aftertaste as does The Company Men, but it’s definitely bottom-of-the-barrel summer-movie filler-material of the lowest, laziest order.† Recently divorced, relentlessly upbeat middle-aged white guy Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) gets fired from his retail assistant job because he never went to college. (Stupid premise, but whatever; moving on…) He decides to go to community college to get back into the workforce, and one of his teachers (Julia Roberts) falls in love with him. That’s the entire plot; nothing else of consequence occurs in the film’s overlong 98 minutes. (OK, so stuff sort of happens: Hanks falls for a particularly vacant/moronic MPDG, and Bryan Cranston pops up momentarily as Roberts’ surly porn-surfing blogger husband—except, this being a PG-13 movie, the porn resembles nothing so much as a lingerie catalogue.) Mega-producer Hanks directed the film—his first active role behind the camera since 1996’s middling, vaguely irritating period comedy That Thing You Do!—and co-wrote the script with Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame, a film which, circuitously, Hanks produced and which contains precisely one joke. (“Yes. Inside the lump… was my twin.”)

You’d think after the complete and utter bomb that was I Hate Valentine’s Day, Vardalos would’ve been removed from the Rolodexes of all the important Hollywood big-wigs—even Tom Hanks—but no. I realise this kind of movie is meant as pure Escapism with a capital E, not realism—but where in the world would you find a community-college teacher (of brainy-sounding courses like “Shakespeare the Politican”) who’s this implausibly hot? Why would you have her give a pizza boy a $12 tip? Why would you cast Wilmer Valderrama as the leader of a biker (motor-scooter) gang? (Surely that alone should have sounded some alarms.) So many questions, so few answers. Clearly Hanks needs to stick to producing: I’d take a dozen more From the Earth to the Moons over yet another mid-level broad comedy of this sort.

After the dreadful Up in the Air and Oliver Stone’s botched revisit, two decades later, to the themes and supposedly timeless tribulations of Wall Street, these two new films don’t inspire confidence in Hollywood’s ability to relate to Joe Public’s experience of the Global Financial Crisis—but I guess at least they’re not all as terrible as Horrible Bosses apparently is. Maybe Everything Must Go will buck the trend?

The Company Men is in theatres now; Larry Crowne opens on August 4th.

* Is that even a thing? A professional firer?
In France, the film’s marketing is a little more direct.