Sundance: John Wells Explores Corporate Downsizing

The writer-director drew on personal experience for this ensemble piece

In "The Company Men," which premiered to a full house in Sundance on Friday night, writer-director John Wells takes a close look at the effects of downsizing in corporate America. Ben Affleck plays a young, successful sales executive for a shipping manufacturer who is suddenly laid off.

From that moment, his Porsche, his suburban mansion and his country club membership are in great peril. But more importantly, his entire self-worth is challenged. Unable to find a new white-collar job, he loses his house, must move back in with his parents and take a manual labor job.

Others at his shipping company, including Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones, do not necessarily fare as well. We hear phrases like "share price," and "buy-outs" and "the shareholders rule," as the company undergoes one wave of lay-offs after another of quality employees. 

Drawing on contemporary society as he did in writing for "ER," Wells said that the film has an underlying observation about where American stands. 

"There used to be a compact between a company and an employee, where the employee worked hard, and the company took care of that employee" said Wells, at a q-and-a session at the Eccles theater after the screening. "That has gone by the wayside. And we haven't found something to replace it. That sense of community is dissolving."

In the video, Wells explains that the idea for the film came when his brother, an electrical engineer, got laid off. Like in the film, his brother ended up losing his house, and having to move back in his their parents.

Even more than "Up in the Air," the movie deals with the dislocation and trauma that comes with educated, white-collar employees being laid off in mid-career, with scant opportunity for them to find new jobs at the salaries to which they were accustomed.

Others in the cast felt similarly affected by the wave of unemployment that has struck the country. Chris Cooper said his brother, a construction worker in Georgia, was hit when the bottom fell out of the real estate market there. "He has several times tried to talk his crew members from taking their own lives," he said. "It's something I have to draw from." 

Said Affleck, "It's about how we identify ourselves through our jobs. My character becomes unmoored from that."

Wells used responses to a request for feedback from thousands of laid-off individuals in the Boston area in his writing of the movie.

The movie is being sold by CAA and IM Global.

Here's a video of Wells at the q&a: