The point of this post is not to just rip a movie (you know me – never an unkind word about anything), but to use it as a lesson in storytelling. So I warn you, MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!! If you have any intention of going to this movie, have fun, I’ll see you tomorrow.
I’m serious now. I give away the ending.
Okay. Since you’re still reading I’m assuming you’ve either seen it or don’t plan to waste two hours of your life that will seem like five.
First off, COMPANY MEN is incredibly slow and plodding. It’s like watching a redwood tree age. What little does happen is extremely predictable.
You probably know the premise. A major company is downsizing. First, young hotshot Ben Affleck gets the axe, then old creaky Chris Cooper. Cooper is 60, no one will hire him because of his age, he has no other skills, the creditors are at the door, no one is showing him any respect, he is literally begging for work, he feels incredibly trapped, he feels incredibly depressed. The movie wants to make a point of how tragic this all is and how it can strip a man of his pride and dignity. So what do you think Chris Cooper ultimately does? Riiiiight. Boo hoo.
Forget the logic holes. If Ben Affleck is fired after being a top-flight exec for twelve years he would likely have stock options. Those could probably carry him. And when the company is ultimately sold for a huge profit he would come into enough cash that his son could get his Wii back from the pawnshop. Also, Affleck says his salary is $140,000 a year but lives in a McMansion, belongs to a ritzy country club, takes lavish vacations, and drives a Porsche. Alex Rodriguez doesn’t live that well.
But here’s the main problem: the story. Put aside for a moment what it currently is. Instead, imagine any of these alternatives based on the same starting premise: Young Ben Affleck gets downsized from a mega company. So as a result…
He decides to get even with the CEO and finds ingenious ways to ultimately bring him and his company down. David vs. Goliath & Sachs.
He decides to sell everything, buy a big motor home, and takes off with the family for a big adventure.
He uses this time to connect with his son and comes to realize he’s been chasing after the wrong things.
He follows his bliss, joins a circus, the circus is struggling, and he uses his business acumen to save the day.
He rounds up some other downsized people and together they start their own business.
His anger gets the better of him and he goes on a rampage, killing off CEO’s.
He reinvents himself into a motivational speaker and finds fame and fortune while helping countless others.
He’ll do anything to get his job back including having an affair with the CEO’s daughter.
He’s so desperate for money he robs a bank with his pals and falls in love with the willowy brunette teller they hold hostage.
The common denominator here is that the protagonist actively does something. It could a misguided thing, or a destructive thing, but he is taking steps to resolve the problem.
Here’s what happens in COMPANY MEN:
Ben Affleck gets fired, he applies for other jobs and doesn’t get them. He’s in a holding pattern, he’s still in a holding pattern, he runs out of money and has to move, but he’s still in a holding pattern waiting for someone to hire him, he does some construction work for his brother-in-law to hold him over, he’s still waiting… and waiting… and waiting. And finally his former boss starts a company and hires him. That’s it. The entire movie he just applies for jobs and waits for the phone to ring. Not only is it passive, not only is it boring, but the ending is completely fortuitous. We call that a Deus ex Machina (essentially an act of God). Conveniently, at any time of the writer’s choosing, he just has someone or something come along and solve the problem for the protagonist.
We’re in this horrible drought. Our crops are going to be ruined. We won’t have enough money to live. What to do? What to do? And then a big rainstorm arrives and problem solved.
I can’t find a job. We won’t have enough money to live. What to do? What to do? Hey, I have a job, you want it? Sure! Problem solved.
It’s lazy, it’s contrived, and it’s just bad storytelling. Always have your conclusion come from elements in the story that you've already established. At all costs avoid Deus ex Machina.
So I don’t care what the reviewers say about COMPANY MEN – for my money, that alone is grounds for dismissal.
UPDATE: We got a hot debate on this topic going on in the comments section. Weigh in with your yay or nay.