A single spontaneous moment pops up in the otherwise obsessively well-ordered ensemble drama "The Company Men," written and directed by "ER" and "West Wing" alum John Wells. It's a quick shot in a hotel room tryst of Maria Bello bopping back into frame, unexpectedly, with a wolfish grin on her face as her character -- a corporate layoff specialist -- bids farewell to her lover, a high-flying but soul-corroded executive played by Tommy Lee Jones.
The actors in this tale of recessionary morals, ethics and consequences are all very good, from Ben Affleck (as Bobby, the central figure, struggling with a grim job market and plummeting self-esteem) to Rosemarie DeWitt (terrific in "Rachel Getting Married" and on "Mad Men," as the nurse married to Bobby) to Kevin Costner (as Jack Dolan, Bobby's brother-in-law). The craft throughout in "The Company Men" is clean, organized, thorough and cinematographer Roger Deakins lends an honest shine to every image. Deakins, truly, is a first-time feature film director's best pal.
The results can be appreciated for a lot of reasons, yet they're frustrating. Wells casts a wide but synthetic net. An aura of well-intentioned generica muffles the dramatic impact of "The Company Men," set among the survivors of a recently downsized Boston-based shipbuilding and transportation company. Bobby, a marketing and sales expert, copes with crushing house payments and an increasingly distant relationship with his loved ones. (He's saved, spiritually, by going to work temporarily for his blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth brother-in-law.) "You want honesty, Maggie?" Affleck says at a typical speechy juncture. "I'm a 37-year-old unemployed loser who can't support his family." Maybe Wells has written too much successful series television for too long; he has talent, but not every line needs to be excerptable for promotional and sound bite purposes.
Wells is no crushing realist: He wants to offer a full dose of hope and comfort to America's afflicted classes (middle and upper-middle especially) with his story. "They were good people, Jim," bemoans Jones' conscience-stricken executive, regarding the recently canned. "Not our responsibility," replies the honcho played with as much humanity as the writing allows, by Craig T. Nelson. "We work for the stockholders now." I'd like to think the earnest sentiments and machine-tooled dramatic complications of Wells' script could find a receptive audience in late 2010. I'd like to think, too, that the mess we're in demands a tougher, gutsier script. Darn good cast, though.