Why did the movies survive the advent of television? There are plenty of reasons, chief among them involving the insufficient amount of places for teenagers to make out and the fact that few other places exist where grown adults can scarf down wholesale quantities of Junior Mints without judgment. Somewhere lower on the list, though, is the fact that the most talented visual storytellers have always stayed in the movie industry.
With some exceptions (read: premium cable), the visual component of television shows is near the bottom of the list of network priorities, superseded by product placement and cross-promotional guest star appearances. The truly great filmmakers make the visual construction of their films as critical as any other element, and even pretty good filmmakers are continually finding ways to enhance meaning and feeling in their films through tricks that may only work on viewers in a subconscious way. They tweak the play of light and shadow or the placement of actors in a frame or the color of a prop that only catches the corner of the viewer’s eye – they care enough about the little things, in other words, that make a movie feel like a movie.
Or they’re supposed to, anyway. This weekend brings two releases with bona fide movie stars (one of which is even worth your time!) that nevertheless don’t have any business being called “movies” in my strict view of the word. It’s a good thing, for example, that references to Los Angeles are quickly made by the characters in The Lincoln Lawyer, because from the aerial montages of generic skyscrapers, the jittery color-saturated flashbacks, and the preponderance of palm trees, it would be pretty easy to mistake this film for a longer episode of CSI: Miami (an older gentleman at the theater mentioned The Rockford Files after the screening, in case that means anything to you non-whippersnappers).
The plot runs through a network-pilot-worthy setup – a charming sleazebag (charmbag?) lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) specializes in securing the acquittal of the guilty and the unsavory, a haughty rich kid (Ryan Philippe) hires him professing innocence on his charge of attempted murder of a prostitute, and twists and turns ensue involving past cases, present danger, and a Summer-of-Love haircut that has traveled to the future to rest on William H. Macy’s head. It’s formulaic (another TV show inspiration soon rears its head – it would give the game away to say which, but hint: it’s also set in Miami), it’s time-worn, and it’s (surprise!) thoroughly satisfying.
As it turns out (and here’s a sentence I never expected to write), the key to the film’s success is Matthew McConaughey, giving by far the best performance of his career. Having played either an easygoing stoner or an easygoing do-gooder in nearly all film appearances, McConaughey is suddenly tasked here with playing a character that requires outright moral ambiguity, and he aces the portrayal. You can’t help liking McConaughey’s Mick because of his charisma and skill, but you’re always fully aware of his scumminess – the plot eventually finds him doing the right thing, but only after forces beyond his control drag him towards the light kicking and screaming, and the joy McConaughey takes in playing against type is palpable.
There’s very little joy to be had in The Company Men, a downsizing-themed Sundance indie as pretentious as The Lincoln Lawyer is gleefully disreputable. Company is the feature directing debut of John Wells, the executive producer behind ER and The West Wing, and The Company Men has that typical TV visual flatness (even Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins can’t save this movie from aesthetic blandness). The flatness, however, extends beyond the visual in this story of three white-collar executives (Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris Cooper) attempting to put their lives back together after being fired from their positions at a shipbuilding conglomerate.
The central problem has to do with how wealthy the protagonists are – Wells takes pains to show the extent of their antique-purchasing, Palm-Beach weekend-trip suburban decadence. I’m not trying to score some quick populist points here – great movies have been made about the problems of the obscenely wealthy (see: Citizen Kane, Hamlet) and this film certainly spends enough time shaking its fists at the imbalance between Wall Street and Main Street. The problem is that the movie sets up a straw man to beat down and then thinks itself profound – this is a film about rich people realizing that cartoonish excess isn’t everything and that all you really need to be happy is a wife that looks like Rosemarie DeWitt (one of the best things about the movie is her warmly funny portrayal of Affleck’s wife).
No amount of incapable-of-being-bad actors like Jones and Cooper can remedy the fundamental obviousness of all the insights here – it would be one thing if this was a view of a long-gone era, but we’ve been battered with every observation this movie has to offer by newspaper op-eds and late night comedians already. The movie is better when depicting the psychological distress of men facing a fundamental shift in their lives, but the movie tends to eschew character study in favor of big, obvious statements about the times we live in.
It takes time before wisdom about historical events can emerge on film, as evidenced by most of the non-documentary films about Iraq. If this movie has to tackle the current moment, it should at least have focused on something more worthy of our attention. Towards the end of The Company Men, Affleck begins working for his salt-of-the-earth carpenter brother-in-law (Kevin Costner), and the film uses that menial work as a tool of spiritual renewal for Affleck’s character while making only cursory mention of the fact that carpenters are in financial trouble too. A braver movie would have probed the darkness of true economic crisis further. While the main characters of The Company Men are trading in their Porsches for beat-up Toyotas, after all, guys who once had beat-up Toyotas are having trouble scraping together enough money for a bus pass.