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Writer-director John Wells, after a long career as a major force in television, brings the quiet muscle and energy of the small screen to the large one with this, his first feature as a director.
Naturally, Wells attracts top-flight talent, so this first-timer has Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones to head his cast. That ought to help out a film that could meet considerable boxoffice resistance. Those who have been laid off know all about this and those hanging on probably don’t want to hear about it
A distributor can expect only modest returns, although the film may show up in college courses in a decade or two when students study the calamitous recession of the early 21st century.
No, its not the great Depression and this is not The Grapes of Wrath. This is about middle- and upper-class men and their families who bought into the American dream and the greed-is-good mentality only to have a corporate run pulled from under them.
Some react with denial such as hot-shot sales agent Bobby Walker (Affleck). He doesn’t even want to cancel his golf club membership. His boss, Gene McClary (Jones), reacts with rage over these layoffs behind his back only to get sharply rebuked by longtime friend and corporate head James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson): Its not his call.
A second wave of layoffs at this large manufacturing conglomerate sweeps Phil Woodward (Cooper) overboard. He is too old to land any job better than a school-crossing guard. His experience counts for nothing. Dying his hair isn’t going to help.
The ripple effect moves out to their families. Bobby’s wife Maggie (Rosemary DeWitt) is the levelheaded one, but she must manage not only the family’s dwindling finances but also her husband’s ugly mood swings. Her brother Jack (Costner) offers Bobby a job with his construction business but that falls drastically short of Bobby’s self-image.
Gene clearly sees the company he helped to build now focuses less on what it manufactures than keeping the share prices up. And he watches his old friend turn into a cowardly, self-interested owner/executive who has lost any feelings for his employees. With all the upheavals in everyone’s life, Gene even leaves his wife for, of all people, the conglomerate’s hit lady, Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello). Strange bedfellows.
Wells doesn’t let much sunshine into his doom-and-gloom scenario. That’s no doubt realistic but it does make the movie one long downer. What Wells strives to get across is that these layoffs force all his company men to take a hard look at themselves, their self images and their values. Few have spent much time with their families; in some cases, that may be by design.
In any event, they come to understand how they once measured success and achievement no longer works. Just how important is that Porsche anyway? How do earnings factor into family relationships? Wells offers neither easy answers nor saving solutions for his troubled men. He suggests improving one’s personal life may be a place to start the rebuilding, but it’s just a suggestion and clearly everyone is not up to the task
Again, the rookie film director benefits from contributions from first-class personnel. Cinematographer Roger Deakins mutes the colors but keeps everything crisp and clean. Production designer David Bomba contrasts the corporate boardrooms and offices with bleak corridors and reception areas where the unemployed camp out looking for work.
Wells also displays a fine visual acumen that nails a truth in a single shot: Rows of empty desks confront a befuddled executive and a job seeker sits down next to a long line of fellow job seekers a third his age.
Wells has made, for his first film, a tough movie and certainly not a commercial one. This displays the kind of guts he always brought to his television work, which one can only hope continues on in other future film projects.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production companies: Spring Creek Prods., Battle Mountain Films
Cast: Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Maria Bello, Rosemary DeWitt, Craig T. Nelson
Director/screenwriter: John Wells
Producers: Claire Rudnick Polstein, Paula Weinstein, John Wells
Executive producer: Barbara A. Hall
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: David Bomba
Music: Aaron Zigman
Costume designer: Lyn Paolo
Editor: Rob Frazen
Sales: CAA, IM Global
No rating, 113 minutes
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