Comfort food for the corporate class in crisis, The Company Men fakes wrestling with the Great Recession through the travails of three executives "separated" from a shrinking Boston-area shipbuilding company. Bobby (Ben Affleck), a 37-year-old paper-pusher, is blindsided by his layoff, the shame of his lapsed golf-course membership, and his adolescent son's sacrifice of his Xbox; Phil (Chris Cooper), an account rep pushing 60, bristles at a headhunter's advice to dye his hair, takes to midday drinking and hurls rocks at the corporate HQ; and Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), weary right-hand man of the callous CEO (Craig T. Nelson), finds himself discharged for disloyalty after arguing against massive downsizing. The toll on the trio is measured largely in strained marriages, moving in with the in-laws, and in Gene's case, trying to further his affair with the company's hatchet woman (Maria Bello in what appears to be a severely truncated role). Bobby's construction contractor brother-in-law (Kevin Costner, grittily amusing save for his leftover Thirteen Days accent) serves as a mocking salt-of-the-earth chorus, but John Wells's directorial feature debut only has eyes for upper-income tragedies, like straight-shooting Gene's imprisonment in a mansion with his frosty antique-collecting wife.
It's Affleck who gets the lion's share of screen time, and the audience is likely to turn on him before the other characters do. His well-heeled suburban heel is shallow, snippy, and not at all compelling; Bobby's tough-loving wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) demurs at his claim of distinction, "You are just another asshole with a résumé." Unlike the more somberly grizzled Cooper and Jones, Affleck can't make taking a belt of Scotch look like self-evaluation, so it takes a seen-it-coming stint hanging drywall with Costner and an 11th-hour rescue by a former colleague to give him perspective.
Wells, a veteran writer-producer of ER and The West Wing, frames and scripts so blandly that ace cinematographer Roger Deakins's work seems undistinguished, and he unfailingly administers a cloying ray of light after suicide has claimed one jobless exec at the entirely expected stage. (The dialogue and ambient news-media noise also send utterly mixed signals about whether the action is meant to be 2008 or present-day.) With Jones's newly enlightened graybeard invoking nostalgia for an era when men "made things they could see" (would they care if they could still make a profit on intangibles?), The Company Men concludes on a note of optimism that feels like whistling in the dark in the face of turn-of-the-millennium "bubble" capitalism undergoing an unpenalized restoration.