With unemployment staring down more than 14 million Americans, it’s natural to want to address the issue on screen. Hollywood has helped define hard times before, through a range of classic films from The Grapes of Wrath to It’s a Wonderful Life. But making an uplifting film about surviving the loss of a job is tough. The best movies — like the best people — transform that disappointment into something different, and that’s the challenge our two competitors each tackle in their own way.
Tom Hanks mines the vein with a lighter touch in Larry Crowne, which he directed, starred in and co-wrote with Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Despite the uncomfortable subject matter, his Academy Awards, box office history and talent made this an easy project to green light. With Julia Roberts on board, the studio is clearly hoping this comedy about being on the wrong side of downsizing will be too big to fail.
The Company Men, released at Christmastime for Oscar consideration and expanded wide last January, shows us more realistically what it’s like to be squeezed out of the office: Longtime friends carry out their boxes of possessions and, like a re-enactment of Dead Man Walking in the workplace, those left behind wonder who’s next. We learn both who’s next and what they must endure in this film by writer and first-time movie director John Wells, featuring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper and Kevin Costner looking for traction and self-respect in a bad economy.
Do we want realism or does a bucketful of sugar help the medicine go down? Find out which of our two entries is a survivor and which heads to the poorhouse, as Smackdown visits the recession!
After putting in 20 years as a Navy cook, Larry Crowne settles in for a long run working for U-Mart, a big-box store. A gung-ho guy who clears litter from the parking lot before his shift begins, Larry wears a figurative Kick-Me sign on his back which, during recessionary times, his employers can’t help but notice. During a sit-down with company superiors in the break room, it dawns on Larry his years of reliable service mean nothing. He doesn’t have a college education, his prospects for promotion are zero, and he must go. “I thought I was going to be employee of the month,” Larry says. “In a way… you are,” they tell him sardonically.
Larry enrolls in community college and discovers he’s not the only person trying to become employable. To improve his public speaking skills, he takes a speech class taught by Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), who is bitter, stuck in a bad marriage and enjoys teaching an 8 a.m. class about as much as Cameron Diaz does in that movie down the hall. Larry dresses like a dork and sweats social discomfort, but he’s the best student in a room full of sullen and disinterested classmates.
In short order, Larry sees he can’t afford his new life: He’s upside down on his home, and unemployment checks don’t cover the mortgage. With his SUV sucking him dry at the gas pump, Larry takes a job cooking at a neighborhood diner for pocket money. Neighbors B’Ella and Lamar (Taraji P. Henson and Cedric the Entertainer) offer him emotional support and sell him a scooter from their ongoing garage sale.
Things start to look up when a much younger classmate, Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) helps Larry upgrade his personal style, and Teacher takes notice. Larry doesn’t exactly hit the on-ramp to a new career, but at least he emerges with a healthy self-image, romance and a hipper wardrobe.
The Defending Champion
Global competition has cut down the options for GTX Corporation, the one-time Boston shipbuilder, which has morphed into a transportation conglomerate with tentacles in medical services, consumer electronics and defense. Now, the share price is flat and its unwieldy size makes it vulnerable to takeover. Divisions consolidate, plants close and careers bleed out from the shop floor to the corner office. The party’s over. First, Bobby Walker (Affleck) goes, then Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper)… then their boss, Gene McClary (Jones).
Fear and anxiety appear on Bobby and Phil’s horizon, replacing the nice houses, country club memberships, sports cars and season tickets. Bobby moves his family to his parents’ house and takes a job hanging drywall for his wife’s brother, Jack (Costner). Phil’s got it even worse, as he faces the painful fact that there’s no demand for a guy turning 60.
By contrast, Gene McClary doesn’t need a job. He helped his college roommate Jim Salinger start the company, and Gene’s stock options made him rich. But somehow, the board memberships, social whirl and mistress on the side don’t ease the pain in his gut. In Wells’ script, Gene knows that a productive work team, not today’s stock price, is the real measure of a company’s value. He decides to do what he does best and eventually succeeds at restoring a sense of dignity for himself and other economic casualties. Not everyone can follow.
Let’s clear the table on a few items: Both films are well shot, well acted, well made. They also tell their stories well — but what stories are they telling?
I know first-hand that downsizing sticks in the memory a long time. It’s humiliating when some minimum wage rent-a-cop escorts you from the building where you spent too many hours away from what really matters: family and loved ones. The justifications never satisfy; the reality is your efforts don’t matter to your bosses half as much as the value in cutting you loose. The euphemism downsizing never softens the blow.
So. If we talk about getting up off the floor, a little honesty, please. Larry Crowne is a pleasant diversion that quickly buries its center. Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts don’t have much chemistry on screen, but they charm in an uncomfortable sort of way. Larry would be excused for getting really angry once in a while; Mercedes might be more sympathetic if she and her hub, Dean (Bryan Cranston from TV’s Breaking Bad, underused here) weren’t such drunks. The set pieces with the neighbors amuse, and Talia keeps the action moving. The drama recedes while the romantic comedy elements move up front. Somehow, losing the house and not finding a job don’t seem so bad if you get the girl. Right.
The Company Men is the far riskier film. This one enrolls you in those outplacement classes offered to most laid-off workers; you see the job prospects torpedoed by lousy employers dangling a gig never intended for you. All this reinforces the feelings of Chris Cooper’s character as he tosses stones at the GTX building: “You know the worst part? The world didn’t stop… My life ended and, you know, nobody noticed.”
There are plenty of movies designed to make you laugh and feel ennobled — even when they visit unpleasant topics that strike close to home. Larry Crowne tries hard to do that. Too hard. It papers over difficulties with a few manufactured laughs, even though the material just isn’t laugh-friendly. At times, the movie feels like My Big Fat American Layoff.
The Company Men, on the other hand, manages to tack a hopeful ending onto a depressing story in a way that feels organic and real.
That’s the difference here. For anyone who’s managed to bounce back from downsizing, Larry Crowne will seem charming at times, but at other times and for other viewers, the film hits too many false notes. Our winner, The Company Men, feels more true-to-life and honestly optimistic. These days, a little real optimism works for me.