Flickchart Road Trip: Massachusetts
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
Here I am, finally arriving in the state where I’ve spent more time than any other. Add up the nearly 18 years I lived there before going to college, plus another six months after college and assorted vacations and holidays, and I’ve probably spent nearly 19 years in Massachusetts. Talk about pressure to come up with five movies that perfectly encapsulate the state’s role in my life. (I can already tell you that I failed miserably at this impossible task.)
I grew up in the Revolutionary War town of Lexington, which is where I saw my first movie in the theater (Star Wars at the single-screen theater in the town center, or so I selectively remember it; the theater was featured in David O. Russell‘s The Fighter). It’s also where I watched my first episodes of Siskel & Ebert, and where I took a class called Art of the Film in my senior year of high school. There, a film fanatic was born. (Thanks to Mr. Brown, my film teacher, who imparted the wisdom that seeing so-called “shlock” was nearly as important as seeing the classics — advice I’ve tried to take to heart, which really comes in handy in a blog series like this one.)
So what do you do in a state where you’ve lived almost half your life? You visit your family. (My mother still lives in Bedford, the town next door to Lexington, and my sister lives in Chelsea, just outside Boston.) You visit your friends. (A couple times during the week.) You attend BBQs in your honor. (Just once, this past weekend.) You stop by your old high school to see if it still looks the same. (It does, more or less.) You check out your childhood home, always an architectural curiosity, and see if it’s finally been torn down and replaced by a McMansion. (It hasn’t, thank goodness.) You hope the Red Sox are in town, because you haven’t been to a game at Fenway Park since 2002. (Alas, they’re on the road all week.) You have dinner at Pizzeria Uno. (Because they don’t have them in California.)
This is all hypothetically speaking, of course.
Non-hypothetically, I watched John Wells‘ 2010 recession drama The Company Men (gobal ranking: #5378) while in Massachusetts. If you’re keeping score at home, that makes three directorial debuts by TV titans in the last half-dozen states. After Glenn Gordon Caron‘s Clean and Sober in Delaware and David Chase‘s Not Fade Away in New Jersey, The Company Men marks the feature debut from the prolific TV producer most associated with ER. (I swear I’m not planning this.) The question is, does his debut get a clean bill of health, or is it on life support?
What it’s about
Things are not well at the Massachusetts-headquartered Global Transportation Systems. Facing a major earnings shortfall (and a CEO who won’t sacrifice his own compensation for the good of his employees), the company begins laying off its dedicated employees. First it’s Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a family man with a six-figure salary who finds nothing suiting his qualifications after months of work with outplacement services. Then it’s Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a senior manager and lifer who knows nothing else and is too old to adjust. Finally it’s Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), best man and best friend of the CEO (Craig T. Nelson), whose public questioning of the chief executive’s decisions eventually earns him the axe. As the three men try to figure out what to do next, Bobby considers an offer for a job installing drywall from his contractor brother-in-law (Kevin Costner).
How it uses the state
As it ostensibly speaks to the plight of people hit by the financial crisis everywhere, The Company Men does not immediately establish its setting as Massachusetts. For awhile, in fact, it seems purposefully vague about where the movie takes place. Then we meet Kevin Costner doing a very sketchy Boston accent, and the regional references start popping up regularly: a Boston Bruins cap, a reference to New England Patriots season tickets, a Boston Sons of Liberty dinner taking place at the Harvard Club of Boston. In fact, Affleck’s own Boston accent starts inconsistently appearing once Costner’s character gives him the green light.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Massachusetts movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films The Company Men will battle:
1) Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg). My Flickchart: #159/3540. Global: #57. I considered several movies for the #1 slot in my home state, among them The Crucible, The Social Network and The Departed (especially since I’m here the same week famed gangster Whitey Bulger goes on trial). However, I ultimately decided I couldn’t be in Massachusetts just before the 4th of July without giving the slot to Jaws. Steven Spielberg’s classic, the film that essentially invented the summer blockbuster, single-handedly put the fear into millions about an activity as routine as swimming in the ocean. Fictitious Amity Island, off the Massachusetts coast, is home to a story that’s equal parts horror, tragedy, satire and thrilling adventure on the high seas, presenting three unforgettable characters (played by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw) each involved in the quest for their elusive white whale. If John Williams’ famous theme song isn’t going through your head right now, it should be.
2) The Town (2010, Ben Affleck). My Flickchart: #782/3540. Global: #798. Ben Affleck’s crowning achievement to date may have been set in Iran, but he also directed two pretty darn good films that take place in his hometown of Boston. Gone Baby Gone and The Town are similarly ranked on my Flickchart, but I decided to focus here on the one with the two guys robbing an armored truck dressed as the scariest nuns you’ve ever seen. The Town technically takes place in Charlestown, not Boston proper; the title is the abbreviation of the name of the city that’s supposed to have the most bank robberies per capita. Whether that’s true or not, what’s definitely true is that The Town is an exciting crime flick with flair to spare. It boasts good performances from Affleck himself, Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Blake Lively, and Pete Postlethwaite, in one of his final screen roles.
3) A Civil Action (1998, Steven Zaillian). My Flickchart: #1322/3540. Global: #3755. Having read the best-selling book on which this movie was based, I found myself surprisingly pleased with the quality of Steven Zaillian’s film adaptation (which he both wrote and directed). I’m choosing A Civil Action for this list in part because the real-life water pollution case took place in the town of Woburn, which is right next door to my hometown. It’s just a solid, grounded, subtle drama that effectively communicates the plight of the families of children who died of cancer and leukemia as a result of the tainted water supply. As the hotshot attorney hired to make the chemical company pay, John Travolta is the personal embodiment of Zaillian’s restrained approach to what might have been ostentatious material in other hands.
4) Ted (2012, Seth MacFarlane). My Flickchart: #2655/3540. Global: #1907. The surprise hit movie that earned Seth MacFarlane a gig hosting the Oscars was not one of my favorite movies of last year. I tried to laugh; really I did. Only a few moments — including Boston native Mark Wahlberg‘s rapid recitation of white-trash names for girls — produced the intended reaction. Maybe I just needed to be a bigger fan of Flash Gordon. MacFarlane’s central concept of a raunchy teddy bear who talks like Peter Griffin is pretty funny, but a little of it goes a long way, and the film has pretty serious structural flaws, spending way too much time on some parts and way too little on others (remember the deranged father played by Giovanni Ribisi? Neither do I). Because both Ted and The Town have climaxes set at Fenway Park, though, I don’t have to dump the Farrelly brothers‘ awful Red Sox movie Fever Pitch in my #5 slot.
5) The Boondock Saints (1999, Troy Duffy). My Flickchart: #3535/3540. Global: #743. Cult masterpiece or absolute piece of garbage? I’m in the latter camp, as my ranking probably indicates. You don’t need to see the documentary Overnight to appreciate how much of a noxious egomaniac Troy Duffy became after Harvey Weinstein’s courtship turned him into a hot commodity; it’s all right up there on the screen. This Z-grade impersonation of a Quentin Tarantino movie is, quite simply, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, as it fetishizes anything and everything related to a pair of sunglass-wearing Irish brothers who knock off lowlifes around Boston in obnoxiously ritualistic fashion. What explains the cult following, then? Some people just have bad taste, I guess.
First duel: The Company Men vs. A Civil Action. It’s pretty uncivilized not to share your largesse with people whose jobs could be saved by it … but poisoning kids through a tainted water supply is worse. A Civil Action wins.
Second duel: The Company Men vs. Ted. I just can’t bear to give Ted the win. (Rim shot). The Company Men wins.
The Company Men finishes fourth out of the six movies.
My expectations for The Company Men were pretty elevated because of its stellar cast, its late-December release date and its topical subject matter. In truth, it’s a bit of a pale version of all of those strengths I perceived it to have.
Let’s start with the topicality. Much like Up in the Air a year before it, The Company Men purported to have its finger on the pulse of what was going on in the United States early in the Obama administration (with problems inherited from the Bush administration). The difficulty here is, it’s only looking at the financial crisis from the perspective of the people who drive a Lexus and golf at a country club. In asking us to wring our hands over the fates of these well-to-do men, who could have afforded to have a larger rainy day fund, The Company Men is essentially asking us to choose sides in a professional sports work stoppage. When it’s a choice between rooting for millionaires and rooting for billionaires, the choice is pretty easy, but it still feels a bit hollow. The movie thinks we should see it as a sign of growth and enlightenment that Affleck’s character, out of dire necessity, accepts the offer of a job doing manual labor from his brother-in-law. What strikes us instead is that he initially reacts to the offer with a loathsome kind of superiority — and that there were many folks who, in real life, would have liked to have that job, except the downturn in the housing market meant that fewer houses were being built and there was less work to go around.
If you set aside things like Affleck’s petulance and Costner’s bad Bahstan accent, the cast does acquit itself pretty well. However, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones can give good performances in their sleep, and these are by no means among their best. As one of the only prominent women in this company of Men, Rosemarie DeWitt is typically strong, yet she too displays a curious inconsistency with regards to the accent — which may be as much the fault of her director as her. Mario Bello, meanwhile, tries to make the most of the role of a heartless hatchet woman. Craig T. Nelson may be the most problematic character, an absolute caricature of a greedy CEO who only cares about his own bank account. A shred of humanity would have made the character more believable. (Is this me rooting for the billionaire? I hope not.)
The Company Men does enough well to qualify as a solid entertainment. It’d be a lot easier to like, though, as a true David, rather than just a story of Goliaths fighting bigger Goliaths.
Which Hampshire are you going to? I’m going to the New one. In New Hampshire, I’ll be visiting with some old folks: Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, the stars of the 1981 film On Golden Pond, who both earned Oscars for their work.