Director John Wells questions priorities in ‘The Company Men’

As a wildly successful television producer, “ER’s” John Wells has enough playing-around money to finance independent films, having traveled to the Sundance Film Festival with “One Hour Photo,” “An American Crime” and “Savage Grace.” But Wells also knows the personal toll -- a relative lost his job and then his home -- of the nation’s economic collapse.

With “The Company Men,” Wells brings the two together.

In his feature film directing debut, Wells has made a movie that starts where “Up in the Air” stops: “The Company Men,” starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Costner, follows highly paid executives caught in the unforgiving downsizing of a fictional Massachusetts shipbuilding firm -- the layoffs are designed to boost the company’s stock price -- and how they try to manage without something to do between 9 and 5.

Premiering at what will likely be a packed Sundance acquisition screening tonight, Wells’ drama is not only an indictment of corporate greed (jobs at GTX may be slashed, but an extravagant new corporate headquarters and the Degas paintings for the $22-million-a-year chief executive are exempt) but also how people with money can become more attached to their belongings than to the people around them.

Admittedly, this is one piece of the larger economic turmoil roiling the country; these characters aren’t minimum-wage employees worrying about keeping a roof over their heads or getting health insurance for their kids. But to Wells, the problems of downsized white-collar workers are equally real and worrisome.

“These characters are devastated not by the loss of their jobs but by the loss of their identity,” said Wells, who also produced and wrote the film. “One of the things we have to confront as a country is the question of what is the American dream? It’s become having a 9,000-square-foot house and having three cars.”

Some of the very first shots in Wells’ film are not of his characters but of their stuff: fancy cars, manicured gardens, gourmet kitchens, luxurious swimming pools, drawers of ties. Affleck’s character, Bobby Walker, has been at GTX for a dozen years, but his seniority counts for little when the ax falls. Even more experience and connections -- not to mention job skills -- are equally immaterial in the employment futures of Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) and Gene McClary (Jones).

As the titular leads in “The Company Men” have succeeded professionally, their possessions (and indulgences) swelled along with their salaries: country club memberships, kids’ school trips to Italy, Porsches, crystal stemware, $16,000 accent tables. All of a sudden, though, it all may be ephemeral. “You have all these things,” McClary says at one point, “and you’re terrified of losing them.”

The job market is equally scary. The dispossessed are sent to a placement office, where they are drilled for their job searches as if they were foot soldiers in a cult. “I will win!” the out-of-work are urged to repeat. “Why? Because I have faith, courage and enthusiasm!”

Walker and his brethren hope they’ll land a new post in just days, only to discover that there’s a lot of younger people out there with MBAs and no kids and who are willing to work “90 hours a week for nothing.” Before long, the film’s unemployed aren’t just questioning their prospects but themselves. “My life ended,” Woodward says at one point, “and nobody noticed.”

Wells worked as a carpenter before making it in Hollywood -- Costner plays a contractor and is the film’s voice of reason. Wells grew up the son of an Episcopal priest and an educator -- “I came up from middle-class roots” -- and said he was stirred to start writing “The Company Men” several years ago, when a well-educated family member lost his job in the dot-com bubble and was forced to move his family into his in-laws’ home.

Wells subsequently went into chat rooms for job seekers and noticed recurrent refrains. “What became very clear among men who had white-collar jobs is that their identity, the value of what they did, was represented by the value of what they possessed,” Wells said.

People who had built things -- homes, for instance -- could see physical signs of what they had created. Executives, on the other hand, had no tangible equivalent. “We have as a nation moved away from a country that makes a lot of things to providing a lot of services and generating a lot of paper.”

Wells said some of the dialogue assigned to the film’s downsizers was inspired by actual remarks from executives at Warner Bros., where Wells’ production company (his current show is TNT’s “Southland”) is based.

Wells clearly doesn’t want his movie to play like some political speech, but the writer-director feels strongly that “The Company Men” is trying to address a critical issue. The country and its corporate leaders, he said, have forgotten that there’s supposed to be a social compact in which the haves protect the have-nots, rather than a system in which everyone is looking out for himself and his compensation and stock options.

“Something is seriously out of whack,” said Wells, who financed “The Company Men” himself. “We’ve lost touch with this notion that we actually have responsibilities.”