Traditionally, Hollywood’s vision of class has been pretty straightforward. The rich tend to be villains, while honest working folk are portrayed as heroes, battling corrupt tycoons, arms dealers, environmental rapists and Wall Street psychopaths. Exceptions to the rule are the Old Money capitalists who represent a golden age of ethical profit, and the ordinary Joe who strikes it rich as a paragon of the American Dream. But since the recent economic collapse, the optics of class warfare on the big screen have shifted. The archetypes may still be in place, but we’re starting to see movies that play like the American Dream in reverse—tales of over-entitled businessmen who fall from grace and inspire empathy instead of contempt.
Last year we had Up in the Air, starring George Clooney as a high-flying hatchetman who helps corporations eliminate employees, then falls victim to downsizing himself. This year’s model is The Company Men, a sharp ensemble drama about a trio of executives who suddenly find themselves out of work when their Boston-based manufacturing conglomerate is forced to consolidate.
Bobby (Ben Affleck) is a cocky sales director whose ego hits a brick wall one day as he breezes into work, bragging about his golf game, only to meet silent stares from colleagues who already know he’s been fired. Next up on the chopping block is Phil (Chris Cooper), a fearful alcoholic who worked his way up from the factory floor and can’t imagine life without the company. Finally, there’s Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), a straight-shooting elder whose shipbuilding division is gathering rust as he commutes to meetings on the corporate jet. He’s a lifelong pal of the conglomerate’s CEO, but it’s not hard to guess that money will trump friendship.
The Company Men is a study in emasculation, showing what can happen to guys when they’re stripped of power and wealth. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Bobby when he’s forced to sell his Porsche. He has a hot, supportive wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), and is still young enough to relaunch his career. In his case, being ejected from the elite offers a life lesson in humility and self-reliance. When Bobby’s options expire, he swallows his pride and accepts a labourer job from his resentful brother-in-law (Kevin Costner), a struggling contractor who builds the kind of houses Bobby can no longer afford to inhabit. Curiously, the movie’s romantic hero is Gene, the most privileged of the trio—even though he’s carrying on an adulterous affair with the firm’s icy HR executive (Maria Bello). At 65, Gene seems immune to whatever fate throws his way, an old-school cowboy capitalist.
A first feature written and directed by TV honcho John Wells (The West Wing, ER), The Company Men is a superbly acted character piece. In that sense, it’s akin to The Social Network, another tale of cutthroat business practices penned by a TV scribe (Wells’s West Wing cohort Aaron Sorkin). Its story is more schematic than Sorkin’s, and marred by an inspirational ending that is unearned and inauthentic. But both films explore the issue of corporate greed versus personal loyalty, while eking out sympathy for alpha males who may not deserve it.
We get a kick from watching the rich and powerful reduced to our level, or below it—the elixir of schadenfreude. That’s also the main attraction of Casino Jack. Directed by the late George Hickenlooper and scripted by Toronto’s Norman Snider, it’s based on the true story of Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), the high-powered lobbyist who was jailed for bribery and fraud in the wildest political scandal to hit Washington since Watergate. As Abramoff bilks native tribes, buys politicians and courts mobsters, his screwball mix of greed and cynicism is so outrageous we can’t help but admire him. Besides, compared to Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper)—the loose-cannon accomplice who testifies against him—Abramoff at least has some ethics. He’s a devout Jew and faithful husband. For Scanlon, the private jet is not enough; he has to betray his wife (Rachelle Lefevre) for the stewardess. What these movies ultimately preach is that in business, as in Hollywood, morality is relative.