Thursday, February 03, 2011


There are many little reasons but one big one. Now before I go any further I should, in fairness, state that a lot of critics liked it. ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY gave it an A. I generally agree with EW, but in this case I can only assume that the studio gave them a print of THE GODFATHER and just slapped the COMPANY MEN title on it. An A? Really?

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.  


mpjedi2 said...

I haven't seen the movie, Ken, so I can't comment on if it's good or not...

That said, I can't help but feel like the series of events you're describing, while they might not be the best storytelling, are quite a bit more realistic than any of the other options you're describing. I mean, OK, maybe the bank robbery one might work, but most downsized people don't have the option of doing anything but looking for a new job.

and, one other comment, I think I lot of people in this situation might tell you that looking for, applying for a job is doing something.

Now, again, this is just me reacting to the description you've provided. I have no idea if it's executed well or not, and don't mean to indicate that you're wrong in your assessment, these were just my reactions to your reactions.

MBunge said...

"I can't help but feel like the series of events you're describing, while they might not be the best storytelling, are quite a bit more realistic than any of the other options you're describing."

That's what it seems like to me. I also haven't seen the movie, so it could be a piece of crap, but your big complaint about The Company Men isn't that it sucks. It's that it is not the sort of story YOU would have written. Instead of evaluating it for what it is, your judging it for not being what you would have done. I've found that to be one of the easiest reviewing traps that people fall into.


Tony Hoffman said...

But Ken, look at all those big name actors!

Just because a movie has a pedigree doesn't mean it's good.

Todd Alan said...

While I normally agree with most everything you write, Ken, the realism of the plot is what would compel me to see this movie. In fact, I read past your spoiler warning because I never intended to see the flick thinking: if Ken doesn't like it I probably won't either. After reading your synopsis I wanna see the movie.

Hoho said...
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Hoho said...

I haven't seen the movie, but it sounds like it reflects the reality of job-hunting. All you can do is apply for jobs and feel impotent. When you do eventually get a job, it does feel like not just a stroke of luck, but a divine intervention. The job isn't quite what you wanted, so it's not something you could get by being "goal oriented" or "proactive."

I wonder how people who make $140,000 live.

Constance Reader said...

THANK YOU! I saw "Company Men" at the Austin Film Festival last October and had the same problem with it -- the lunacy of Affleck's lifestyle vs. salary. Most of the people I talked to didn't get it, they're all starving filmmaker types, but I am a professional with a high salary and I tore it apart for them.

I liked Cooper's character, but I thought his end was really the writer/director taking the easy way out. The film was pretty realistic except for these two points.

HEATHER said...

Ken, I haven't seen this movie, but have lived this situation with my husband a few years back. I DO NOT go to the movies to SEE REAL LIFE. I want fantasy, I want glitz, I want glamour! I am totally a product of the Golden Age of Hollywood movie making. This is the main reason I think that City of Angels is the THE WORST movie ever made-NO HAPPY ENDING! Ok stepping off soapbox for now! ;-)

Phillip B said...

I'll see the movie - in time - too.

Can well understand the problem with this downturn is that it does not having a compelling narrative. Older white guys who made too much money, who were not as productive as they could have been, and who spent way too much thinking it would never end.

If Michael Moore had written this the irony would have been that these guys thought they were part of the ruling class - and now have been abused and abandoned. John Wells clearly took another tack - but he clearly understood this needed to be entertainment.

The reviews seem willing to forgive the flaws in the movie because it gives voice to a problem which is really hard to relate too - if you've not been close to it - and is truly important to understand. Most of the negative comments I've read questioned whether there was any point in caring about the problems of old, formerly rich, white men.

Somersby said...

I have seen the movie and I have to disagree with you on a couple of points - but do agree that it plods along at a snail's pace.

I think the whole point of Ben Affleck's character coming across as somewhat passive IS that when one finds oneself in such a position, there is very little one can do other than apply for jobs and wait. Apply and wait. Apply and wait. Anyone who has found themselves in similar circumstances (as I have) fantasizes about robbing banks, disappearing and starting again, becoming a successful motivational speaker, etc. But let's face it. Those things only work in the movies.

What didn't work in the film is that most people have a difficult time feeling sorry for senior execs who draw huge paychecks who find themselves suddenly laid off. The Chris Cooper character isn't hounded by creditors, he's haunted by not being able to pay his daughter's tuition in an Ivy League university. I wanted to yell, "Sell your friggin' mansion, Chris. Downsize. Liquidate. You'll be okay if you just live like the rest of us!"

One does have difficulty rooting for anyone who's been fortunate enough to live very high off the hog for a long time and suddenly finds things a little tight financially. I have to ask who's this movie really aimed at? Could be just me, but I don't think most of us can identify with these guys.

Your escalator operator said...
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Your escalator operator said...

Maybe the Deus ex Machina explains why all of the actors are looking skyward in the movie poster.

Also, I saw the movie and I think that's a fair analysis.

Brian Fies said...

I think commenters defending the story as more realistic are missing the point that the movie is a drama, not a documentary. The hero needs to act rather than bob along on the currents of the plot. Interesting characters fight the current. A story about a guy who tries and fails and tries and fails to get a job while his frustration and tension builds could be great as long as it ends with him doing something (anything) about it. Sounds like "Company Men" should've been about the old boss who started a new company and hired Ben--there's your hero.

By Ken Levine said...

I'm loving this debate. You guys are great!

I agree that applying for work is "doing" something, but it is not dramatically interesting to watch... for two hours.

I wonder how many people here who are defending the plot would feel the same way after they've seen the movie. Here's my guess -- halfway through it they'd be screaming at the screen, "Okay, I GET IT!"

My main point is this -- you need a stronger narrative. I just threw out a bunch of random examples; some better than others. People want to be told a good story. If it gets repetitious, if not enough happens, you start losing interest. Boredom is a screenwriter's Kryptonite.

You might say, can you make a good, compelling movie considering the limitations of this subject matter? I say yes. Rent SAVE THE TIGER. See DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Then do a Pepsi Challenge with THE COMPANY MEN.

Let the debate continue!

Matt Tauber said...

I haven't seen the movie, and probably won't, because every plot point, including the resolution, was shown in the trailer. My wife turned to me in the theater and said, "Did we just see that whole movie?"

Kendall Gray said...

Seems to me that the real issue here is... Research.

I've been fired a couple times in my life; downsized, RIF'd, straight out shit-canned. I think if we live long enough to have a career- or two- it's something all of us go through.

And this movie does not seem to have been written by anyone who understands what being fired- let go, etc- is like. Particularly for executives and older people.

More, this doesn't seem to be a movie bolstered by an understanding of, well, what's interesting on screen.

I don't expect a movie to mirror real life. That would be so boring:

Watching Al Pacino step out of a cab, figure out where he put his wallet, count out the fare, wait for change... Walk up the stairs to the court house, stop in the can to pee...

Ridiculous. Movies are what Bill Goldman referred to as the "good parts" versions of life. They cut out all the boring bits- waiting on line, ordering Sbarro, walking to the El station or, in my case, waiting for all the blood to drain out of the body before pulling it out of the tub.


We all have problems.

Whoever did this movie... did not seem to understand this. Not only does this not paint a particularly informed picture- the story of someone being fired and reacting to it- it shows a lot of the really boring bits of the story it tells.

Unknown said...

I saw the film and I can't say as I really enjoyed it since it was SO depressing (definitely not the feel good film of the year), but since I was watching a screener I didn't find it boring. I was able to pause it and come back to it when i felt like it, but my sense is that I wouldn't have found it boring in a theater - just grueling.
My biggest complaint is the aforementioned Deus Ex Machina. I haven't seen such a cheat since watching Toy Story 3.
I think the point of this film was not to make a standard story as your suggestions described, but to do a character study of a man who loses everything and has to re-think his life choices after going into the 'wilderness' for 40 days (etc). The ending undercuts him re-making himself though since all that changed in the end was him making less money and he probably couldn't join the country club again for a few years.I assume that ending was created by committee.
Can't say that Affleck's acting has gotten any better though. he should stick to directing.

RyderDA said...

Okay, so the comment thread is about the difference between movies and real life, and in the end (as Ken asked) what makes a good story. Probably 90% of people in real life end up like Affleck (and I haven't seen the movie), and 10% do something extrordinary. My company is currently downsizing and rest assured, 90% are acting like Afflecks.

Is the purpose of a movie to show real life? There's a reason for the phrase "it only happens in the movies". Agreed 100% that it's not a documentary. But the writers missed a HUGE opportunity to contrast the passivity of Affleck with another character (or maybe two) who does take a huge risk and robs a bank or buys a motor home or saves a circus. Now THAT would be cool story telling.

MBunge said...

"My main point is this -- you need a stronger narrative."

That may be true. I think my point is that you seem to be saying these filmmakers should have told a different story, which is of dubious value as criticism. Your examples weren't of how they could have told their story better, but of how they should have made another movie altogether.

Perhaps they should have, but I'd be more interested in your view of how they could have done a better job telling the same story, instead of how you would have radically rewritten the script so that it isn't even remotely the same film.


Tracy G said...

I agree that the movie sounds like a "realistic" representation of the job market, of what happens after someone is laid off. During my 6 month stint of unemployment after the ad agency I worked for shut its doors I did a lot of apply-and-wait, as well as attending networking meetings, taking skill classes, etc. I was bored DOING it, I can't imagine WATCHING it. That's what montages are for, right?

I also think that the actual found job is a miracle of sorts and there's no two ways around that. HOWEVER, I think you can tell that story and have it be interesting and realistic while still having a more inspiring, satisfying outcome.

Two of Ken's options fit that bill:

He uses this time to connect with his son and comes to realize he’s been chasing after the wrong things.

He rounds up some other downsized people and together they start their own business.

Both have possibilities for tears, angst and laughs along with those inspiring, Oscar-worthy monologues actors seem to like :)

Mac said...

I haven't seen the film so I might be talking bollocks, but it sounds like a marketing strategy that came before a script. ie: Lots of people are losing their jobs and finding it tough to get new ones, so let's make a film about that. Maybe not, and maybe there's been a script in gestation for many moons, but unless it's about more than some guy who used to be employed but isn't now, I can't see the appeal.
"Save The Tiger", apart from starring the incomparable Jack Lemmon, was about so much more than losing a job - it was about a guy whose whole world was giving way to a new one that he didn't really understand, let alone stand a chance of having any status in.
"Up In The Air", pulled off the challenge of humanising people who work in a (perhaps justifiably) demonized profession - sacking people whose bosses are too scared to. It ended up being about a lot more than just involuntary redundancy.
The ending sounds abysmal. Up there with "And then I woke up and realised the whole thing had been a dream."

By Ken Levine said...

When I'm asked to rewrite a movie, it's almost always to fix and change the story. Improving the dialogue can improve scenes to a certain degree or make them funnier, but when movies don't work it's either due to the story or that they've cast Keanu Reeves.

So I wouldn't take the rewrite if I weren't allowed to tear apart the story.

Ted said...

I actually saw the movie - and I've been out of work for a while. I had the same big problem as Ken - boy, those guys were lucky they found a job at the end of the movie.

But one aspect of the movie resonated with me. All four men reacted with anger and bitterness when they were lad off. That happened to me too.

MBunge said...

"When I'm asked to rewrite a movie"

But reviewing a film and rewriting it aren't the same endeavor. I've reviewed plenty of movies at my shitty little blog that left me staring at the screen wondering "Who the hell thought THAT was a good idea?", but it's never occured to me to write about how they should have changed this or that or the other thing. That's because whatever microscopic value people may get out of my pathetic critiques, it comes from my description of the movie as it is.

A good review isn't about whether the reviewer likes the movie. It's about helping the reader figure out if they'll like the movie.


Linn said...

Get fired - wait - wait - wait - get hired back?
I doubt there is anyway to make that interesting, no matter how excellent writer or actor. Everyday life is usually not entertaining, movies should be - isn't that the point of watching them?

The Bitter Script Reader said...

Full disclosure - I have not seen the movie, but I did read the script for coverage many, many moons ago and from all reviews I've read, the fundamentals of the story haven't changed. I just looked up my coverage to refresh my memory and the biggest points I made were:

1) noting that it took a "realisitic" approach to depicting the life of someone who'd been downsized, especially the monotony of applying for jobs.

2) Commenting that while (1) might resonate with viewers today, it also had the effect of making the script slow and repetitive in places. This is exacerbated by the problem of the Affleck character's insistence on "keeping up appearances" by maintaining his country club lifestyle and driving around his in luxury car. This goes on long enough that it cut into sympathy for the character.

3) I found the Chris Cooper character's storyline to be overwrought and trite in its conclusion (which Ken doesn't reveal, but is pretty easy to guess from his post). It's something I'd expect to see from a first-time screenwriter, not a writer with John Wells' resume.

4) Most of all, I felt that the deus ex machina (and I used that EXACT expression in my coverage) that rescues Affleck in the end totally undercuts any argument of "realism" used to excuse the slow pace earlier in the script. It's completely out of tone with the script seemingly built on showing the "real" problems that "real" people who've been downsized face. I could have accepted it in a film where that monotony was not only spotlight, but seemingly the film's entire reason for being - but here, it really ends the story on a false note.

So I guess what I'm saying is that I agree with Ken on the big picture. It's a shame, because there are some little moments that really seemed to work on the page. The ending of the Cooper and Affleck stories almost single-handedly ruin all that, though.

Kendall Gray said...

Sure, there's a way to make waiting around... and around... for something to happen- which never does- interesting.

You can make interesting stuff happen around the waiting. Or you can make the waiting itself interesting- Bartleby The Scrivener comes to mind.

Linn said...

You can make interesting things happen along the way, but in the end, won't the ending still be disappointing?

Anonymous said...

The argument that this is a "realistic" series of events that deserves a "realistic" treatment considering today's troubled economy doesn't hold water for me. The people who could realistically relate to this represent a small minority of this country. As Phillip B summarizes, why should I care about these guys? If I want to see a movie about people struggling through layoffs I'll go see The Full Monty again.

A few years ago I moved to a new town and thought I had a full-time gig worked out well in advance. A couple of weeks before moving I found out they only were intending on bringing me on part time. So I scrambled around and found another full-time gig - for about 2 months before that company went under. So I needed work, fast. After three weeks of scrambling while we lived off our credit cards, I had a series of bad interviews (on my part) and $1000 in new equipment I'd bought with credit to give voice over work a try. After realizing the voice over thing was going to take a loooong time to get going, even with talent, I ended up taking a job installing pool tables for just enough to scrape by.

Then, on my first day there, I got a call from a company I'd applied to that had told me the position was filled asking if I wanted an interview. They had no idea how much I wanted an interview and after having had some time to reflect and swallow my pride I killed at the interview and am still working for that company today.

My story, I think, would make a better movie than the pablum being served up in The Company Men. Call me about the rights if you're interested... =)

Thing is, there are probably hundreds of other stories even more compelling than mine (see The Pursuit of Happyness) about people who don't have the luxury of waiting for a phone call. These stories aren't hard to find and I think this reflects just how coccooned the world of most (based on what I see on the movies and TV) screenwriters has become. I, for one, don't want to keep feeding that particular beast with my hard-earned cash.

gottacook said...

Haven't seen the movie, but anyone who recognizes the name of John Wells probably also knows that it was under his aegis that two helicopters fell onto Paul McCrane's ER character Dr. Romano, the first maiming him and the second a few years later finishing him off. Machina, indeed!

Bob Summers said...

The only place I've seen this movie is when it was reviewed on Ebert's new show.

There is discussion of the scene I think Ken is talking about with Cooper. It is silly as all hell.


They throw rocks at the company building.


They also pointed out the items Ken described From Ken's description and the Ebert review, I don't think this movie would've been made without Affleck being attached to it.

Also, if you get a chance to check out the show, Christy Lemire was an excellent choice. Such a brilliant and gorgeous woman.

Anonymous said...

Mac @ 10:38

Save the Tiger also was a metaphor of the late 60s/early 70s. The old way of doing things was out and if you didn't figure a way to stay current...

I doubt if I will see this movie, I have enough depressing things going on in my life, I don't need to be reminded that my family is a breath away from being without my dear hubby's job. But it does sound to me as if the screenwriter didn't have a clue how to tell a good story.


Unknown said...

There's been a recent blog post from a 30something german biologist blogger over here (in germany). She describes how she has job interviews, sweating, going against former co-workers, being asked to put in insane hours and if she's willing to do that job in the interview situation she describes. She lives in a horrible part of town, loud neighbours (one side: student musician, other side: violent couple). She admits she can't do those hours anymore. She kind of admits she didn't even get the job in the first place. She feels lost.

And then she gets a job from a company completely out of her field. She has a PhD in Biology and now she's asked to work in a job that is totally unrelated. She takes the job - so she can move to a better part of town. But she has to let go of her dream. She has to work in a skyscraper for a company that has nothing to do with biology or science in general.

I didn't like THAT story either. I wanted to comment "boo hoo who cares".

Problem is - there's a huge part of the population who has been in that situation and they feel connected with this. So I didn't comment.

So I kind of have to agree with the posters above who said that of course you could've done a DIFFERENT movie but all the ideas you came up with have been done before AND they don't reflect the real world. And even though you THINK it is a Deus Ex Machina when he gets a job, it really isn't. It really IS that way. After a while you don't know what you are worth anymore. ANY job that has a decent pay feels as if you don't deserve it. Or so they say. Because I never was in that situation. I've always been working and maybe that's also why you don't understand this. You write - basically you always work.

Fun thing is that I currently read "Conversations with my agent" and it kinda feels like you have been in this constant whirl of different jobs you did and being judged by people that you can't connect with this feeling of job hunting in the movie. You just didn't connect with it :-)

Phillip B said...

Typed +men +angst +movie +best into Google and got references to the X-Men, Footloose and a scholarly treatise on Two and Half Men - in German.

But I did find an excellent discussion of films about men on - fair to say there are more films about coming of age than of getting to a certain age. They have this summary of a really great film about men:

"An Italian Neo-Realist classic, The Bicycle Thief tells the bleak story of a man in impoverished post-war Italy whose bicycle, which he needs to work, is stolen. Father and son hunt all over Rome to find the bike, with no one to help them and ultimately no success. And thus the father is faced with a classic philosophical problem: is it okay to steal to feed your family? Realistic and honest, this movie provides one of the best glimpses into the nature of the father/son relationship."

So The Company Men may indeed be an opportunity lost. But I am assured that Ken will do a great job bringing to TV as a sitcom....

Sally creeping down the alley said...

John Wells wrote Company Men? Why didn't you say that up front, that's reason enough to not see the film.

As to the rest, realism vs. movie realism: a guy making $140K living above his means (gosh, who doesn't live above their means) quickly falls from grace when he losses his job and has to reevaluate not only his lifestyle, but examine the meaning of his Life? That I can dig...

Watching the guy go from interview to interview? Sounds like a reverse of "Up in the Air" to me, maybe each interview gives insight to the character. An uplifting ending? Geez. How non-Hollywood.

If Wells hadn't written this movie, I'd probably go see it. So it's a qualified "yes" for me.

Lori Kirkland Baker said...

I'm with Sally but I watched it because it came in the mail for free. I fell asleep shortly after Affleck started the construction job. Had no interest in restarting it when I woke up. Yawn.

Knuckles Buchanan said...

Ken: I've no need to see the movie, because I've lived it (without the actual "working" part of it). I was laid off in '09, and basically sat around feeling sorry for myself, drinking a lot and waited for the phone to ring. My response was wrong, but it's incredibly real. Is it cinematic? Not if my fat ass is on the screen, but it is true.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

First off, COMPANY MEN is incredibly slow and plodding. It’s like watching a redwood tree age. What little does happen is extremely predictable.

Exactly how I felt when "The West Wing" came back on the air in its fifth season, sans Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, with John Wells (who made "Company Men") fully in charge.

RSims said...

Friday question: I recently saw the beginning of Bones (not a show I've ever watched for some reason) and was completely caught by how many producers of various sorts they have. There are (regular?) producers, co-producers, executive producers, co-executive producers, consulting producers, supervising producers, associate producers -- I think they had more producers listed in the opening credits than cast members. I kid you not, it was something like a dozen of them. What do all of these people do, and why are they all needed?

Doktor Frank Doe said...

A writing project like this reminds me of getting a hell of an idea that has no ending, then writing a compelling story nonstop for two days straight, suddenly realizing I have to pee, then hurrying the ending before allowing myself to go. It gets less compelling and more hurried the closer i get to the porcelain.

Kevin Arbouet said...

Jesus. The least you could've done was give a spoiler warning...

Jonathan said...

Hearing Ken's review brings to mind Joseph Campbell and the hero's journey. Cambell, an inspiration to many writers both in and out of Hollywood, was an expert on world mythologies and delineated the common steps of characters' paths through stories. The step that correlates to this story would be refusing the call to adventure, e.g., being called out of the familiar and into the wild and not going. Those that refuse the call are left in a state of decay and characters that never accept the call typical result in a completely and thoroughly unsatisfying story. It'd be like reading Sleeping Beauty and have it end when she goes to sleep (Sleeping Beauty is an example straight from Cambell). While Ken isn't looking at this story academically, and analyzing through a Campbellian lens, his instincts as a writer fall perfectly in line with the world tradition of wanting a story where someone accepts the call to adventure rather than sitting for the phone to ring.

Anonymous said...

Hamlet didn't do much. He talked a lot, yelled at his girlfriend, thought about killing himself. The protagonist doesn't have to do too much for a story to be interesting.

But I'll bet the movie sucks.

Stephen Gallagher said...

The realism or otherwise of the situations isn't the issue, here. A story has to organise incident to make a point, because that's what story is.

Naz said...

Why would I pay money to see this movie? Actually, I won't watch it for free when it hits HBO. Not an Affleck anyway, but the storyline is something I've recently lived with. Believe me, it's not entertaining at all.

Anonymous said...

MBunge would have preferred Ken’s version of the same story, written better.

What about this (disclaimer: haven’t seen the movie):

Guy has the perfect job. Everything in his life is peachy, except for the mild rivalry with his brother in law.

Guy loses his job. Guy’s boss tells him about the new business he is planning, but has no details or time frame.

Guy applies for jobs. Nothing happens. Applies some more. Meets with former boss, finds out the plan isn’t totally scrapped, but at this point it looks more like a pipe dream than a real-life possibility.

Guy stumbles into more problems. E.g. Sudden medical condition of a family member. Eventually, he is force to work for brother in law.

Guy starts being less depressed, more accustomed to his new life, work with brother in law is not great but tolerable. Keeps applying for jobs, has a few near misses and gets a new promising contact on his initial field of work.

Former boss comes along. He wants to hire him. Guy can go back to his former rich life, but there’s a problem. He has to start with a smaller salary and work up from there.

Guy has gone through a lot. What does Guy do? Take the risk of losing his newly acquired life balance and miss on that new opportunity that seems to be just around the corner, or take the risk with a new company and start from a lower position with his former boss?

Guy meets with that new exciting contact. Nothing can be promised yet. Guy chooses to take the risk and work for his former boss.

RMS said...

An amazing take on the suddenly out of work idea is the novel "The Axe" by Donald Westlake. It's a hilarious and brilliant satire that I would love to see made into a film. The character doesn't just apply and wait, he definitely decides to take matters into his own hands. I highly recommend it!

Jared Cressbeckler said...

Haven't seen the film, but reading Ken's deconstruction reminded me of Ebert's Rule: It's not what a film is about that's important, it's HOW it's about it. If someone were to tell you that 127 hours is about a guy who gets stuck motionless in a cave, and the only action that happens is when he gets himself unstuck, you'd say it's a cure for insomnia. My Dinner With Andre, Buried, Lost In Translation. All films in which nothing much happens, but to many were emotionally engaging. It was HOW the films deal with the material that made audiences connect.

I wouldn't conclude that Company Men is bad because someone told me that Ben Affleck "only looks for work then finds it." The character can still react and behave in interesting ways while looking for work, and perhaps the kind of job he settles for at the end could have some irony or social commentary about entering a different social class. Maybe none of that happened in this film, haven't seen it, just sayin'...

But I'm also reminded of Siskel's Rule: You know a movie is bad when you'd rather watch a documentary of the actors having lunch between takes.

Ken is probably right, but in order to convince me that the film is a dud, I'd want to hear more than "it doesn't fit normal storytelling conventions." Convince me that the characters themselves are not interesting enough to watch. Tell me that you'd rather watch a documentary about Affleck and Cooper in the commissary.

Unknown said...

if you think Company Men had an inactive protagonist and a too realistic storyline try sitting through Another Year. And amazingly it's the darling of all the critics. My wife and I both felt like that was two hours we'd never get back and we were watching a screener. We kept waiting for something to happen and nothing ever did...but it sure felt like a year passed by

Edward Copeland said...

Not all critics liked it Ken. I, for one, didn't. Here's my review.

-bee said...

I'm not going to say I think this movie was 'great' - but I thought it was really, really good and made some excellent points.

I did not need it to be spelled out for me that the downsized characters were financially brought down because I presumed that like many Americans, they were in debt and living beyond their means.

You complain that Aflleck and Cooper's characters would have a safety net of stock options, etc, but it is made very clear that they do NOT because Tommy Lee Jone's character states in no uncertain terms that he is NOT going to be financially hurt because of his stock options - which indirectly indicates some kine of company policy.

It's also clear that the value of the company's STOCK value is the driving force behind the downsizing - and one infers that when the company is cutting 2nd tier executives loose it is recouping secondary forms of compensation (also the cost of health insurance) by doing so.

I think you miss the forest for the trees by insisting on a more character-driven plot when I think the ultimate point Welles wanted to make was thematic - that the American economy CAN be saved if CEO's sell a few of their Cezannes and start investing in the livelihoods of their fellow human beings.

Don't really understand how you can HATE a movie with a message like that.

The only complaint I have with the movie is that Cooper's character was given a sort of short-shrift and there was a little too much Affleck, but I think that's forgivable because Welle's wanted to end the movie with a constructive criticism ending.

Matt said...


Star Wars employs probably one of the most successful Deus ex Machina: Han Solo coming out of nowhere to pull Luke's tit out of the wringer at the Death Star.

Is something like this the exception to the rule?

Anonymous said...

that's what happens in real life dude. nobody joins the circus. I mean, you haven't worked on tv for ages, what did you do? are you sitting on a pirate ship right now, blogging in between your epic pirate adventures? no, you're waiting to hear from your agent about the pilot season or whatever, while you do you baseball gig. movies that tell real stories about real life is what grown ups like to watch.

Matt said...

Rory - Very true! West Wing was two different series: The Aaron Sorkin West Wing .. and something else.

selection7 said...

I do agree with the posters who say that just because nothing huge happens doesn't mean it can't be interesting (and Ken may have taken it a bit too far by addressing the movie solely from a script doctor's perspective, but because that's one of the way's he's made a living, it's understandable), but consider that Ken did say he thought the things that DID happen were boring, not just because they weren't what he would have done, but because of poor execution. That's an acceptable critique even if it was concealed a bit by his further argument.

Props to Mbunge, though, about how the main things critic get wrong is critiquing what the work is not rather than what it is and what it was trying to be. That's one of those conclusions I'd developed on my own from years of reading bad reviews and had never heard anyone else explicitly say, but I knew I couldn't be the first to think that.

I've sometimes thought Ken can be a little too into comedy "rules" (not always, for example, his past commentary on industry gurus who have their instructional books & seminars), but it occurs to me that being a veteran writer who's often been tasked with writing under extreme time constraints (simply being a sitcom writer), knowing the conventional wisdom of your craft seems vital, not just prudent, even if you do sacrifice a little of the serendipity of experimentation.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Ever see "Patterns," Rod Serling's 1955 live drama about office politics? It even has a small role by a future TV witch (not Christine O'Donell).

Rob:-] said...

I watch movies to be entertained and I love a good plot with no holes. Don't leave out well drawn characters that make me care about their well being to round it all out.

But I want my protagonist to drive the action and at least try to captain his fate. I think that's why I lost interest in the Harry Potter series. At least in the first three movies he was a leaf in the wind, his destiny shaped mostly by others.

I also want the Hollywood happy ending most of the time. I think that's why I disliked "Mystic River". Bad people get away with murder, literally, killing the wrong guy with no consequence. What is the point? I guess it must be that "live isn't fair". I knew that already. It's made all the worse by great acting, direction and photography.

On the other hand why did I like "The Station Agent" so much. It has almost no plot. It's a great example of a character driven story. It's a great little movie where I care about all the characters. I had on idea what was going to happen next, which is always a good thing. When I tried to guess I was wrong a lot.

So I think, after reading all of this, I'll skip COMPANY MEN and I'll guard against creating any stories like this either.



dougR said...

(spoiler alert, obviously)
Ken, I saw your review a couple days ago and put off reading it till after I'd seen the movie, which I did an hour ago.

I respectfully dissent! I think any of your themes would have phonied-up the movie as much as you claim (and I agree) the deus-ex-machina ending does--that is, if you want the movie to be true to what real-life Americans are going through right now. If you want to cheapen their experience by using it as a springboard for "entertainment," fine (and I know how stick-up-the-ass that sounds as I type it)--but I'm guessing Wells was trying to show the corrosive, dislocating effects of sudden unemployment, and the powerlessness, frustration, rage and hopelessness the current corporate "rules of the game" engender. Maybe he could have done that by (as you seem to suggest?) doing something else, but I doubt it. I was plugged into the movie pretty much all the way, finding suspense in the choices the characters made, and at how they and their relationships changed under extreme duress, and so on. I regret the ending not because it came out of nowhere, but because it's so fatuously improbable in this day and age. (Build something in this country? Only a suicidal idiot would try that anymore.)

Anonymous said...

Interesting assessment of the artistic value of script, but having watched my father, who was fired in his 60s, apply and apply for jobs and not get a nibble (and this was 20+ years ago), I can confirm that what was portrayed in the movie is what happens to many middle-management men of a certain age. My father just stopped looking, signed on for Social Security and my mother took over financially. Difficult times.

DanielM said...

I have not seen the movie, but I absolutely HATE in television or film when someone states a salary that doesn't reflect their lavish lifestyle. The fact that the character is said to make only 140K is reason enough not to see the film. It's just sloppy writing and takes any reality out of the situation for me.

nacnudmac007 said...

That movie sucked shit. Ben Affleck is such a fag as he was in Jeresey Girl. I was hoping that his wife would leave him and he would wind up on the streets while that faggot thought the world owed him. That movie just gave a picture of how irrational and retarded Americans can be. I have enough sense not to live beyond my means because I'm Canadian.