and sometimes poetry

The Company Men (2011) | Review by Hannah Brooks-Motl

The Company Men is not that bad of a movie. However, it’s not that great of one either. It tries to tackle an unwieldy, unsexy subject with dignity, respect, and a star-studded cast of leading American men, which means that nobody takes their shirt off in this movie, and there is no sex. (Oh wait—we just remembered that Tommy Lee Jones does both those things, but with a skin so sad and beaten it threatens to slide right off his face, leaving only the ruined coins of his eyes like pennies nobody wants to pick up. Tommy Lee showing his old-dude chest and getting some ass certainly didn’t hurt TCM, but it didn’t save it either.) How do we use art to address important, contemporary issues like the recession, the bail-out, the accompanying populist wrath, corporate malfeasance, and the twilight of the American manufacturing economy? The Company Men’s answer is: long, rambling scenes wherein the utter banality in which a portion of us lucky, lucky Americans live is faithfully, tediously represented on screen. Ben Affleck’s wife gets groceries a lot. Chris Cooper rubs his nose over some big binder of stuff, trying to remember if he’s still in American Beauty or what. Affleck himself makes a lot of phone calls, attempting to find a new job after he’s laid off from his impossibly cushy old one. Then he slums it with his wife’s brother’s construction company and there are many shots of him hauling manly stuff like bags of cement up stairs while Kevin Costner’s hair-line to neck-width ratio incrementally expands. We can’t remember, twelve hours after watching TCM, a single line anyone said (except for Mark, who bad-joked our ear off through the entire thing).

Another way to address the devastating economic times in which we now live and try to work might have been to not address them at all. We mean that strenuous message-mongering rarely makes anything anyone wants to watch, or read, or think very carefully about. Using the “issues” to build the plot, rather than relying on story’s inherent ability to render the particularity of individual experience, The Company Men slithered out of the contradictions, complexities, and strangeness all movies—not to mention poems—owe us. Contemporary poets get accused of writing in MFA-vacuums, as though anxiety over the future, sustenance wages, pervasive politics, and general, low-level fear don’t thrive in the dingy mills of graduate school same as anywhere. It’s all there, in most everybody’s life, and it is all right now. But how to acknowledge it? How to represent it faithfully, accurately and—above all—interestingly? The Company Men gives us some hints we all already know, or should: for fuck’s sake, tell it slant.

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