Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Company Men and The Temptation of St. Tony

The Company Men

This year’s Up in the Air, but bleaker, without the leavening humor. Also, (see the title) more male-centric. In theory, there’s no subject unfit for cinematic treatment, but the chastening and redemption of an obnoxious corporate player forced to adjust to a less gilded lifestyle (George Clooney’s professional downsizer in the Jason Reitman picture; Ben Affleck’s sales exec in John Wells’ current feature) puts that theory rather severely to the test. Unlike Clooney’s charmer, Affleck’s Bobby Walker is pretty much all asshole, defining himself by the luxury life (Porsches, Patriots season tix) that he can barely afford on his middle-class salary. When he gets the axe in a round of corporate downsizing, he can’t pay his mortgage, suffers a crisis of class-sliding dread and is finally forced to take a job hanging drywall for his contractor brother-in-law. Ennobled by his brief contact with the working class, he’s (spoilers ahead) free to rejoin the white collar world, netting a more ethically responsible position, albeit at half his old salary. As if there was any question of Affleck’s character ending up a full-time laborer.

Semi-upbeat ending aside, this is a world of corporate double-crosses, humiliating employment agency exercises, suicides and small businesses that can’t break even, where anyone above the age of 30 is seemingly unemployable, a state of affairs that emerges through the stories of the other “company men” of various levels of seniority also terminated from Walker’s company. Bloated CEO pay and outsourcing are the culprits according to the film’s endlessly reiterated talking points, but for all its attempts to speak to our moment and address the larger picture of economic failure, this is one more redemption-of-corporate-man melodrama, in this case effecting the ethical deliverance via a dubious embrace of the purity of working class labor, a “lower” world which it eventually discards as beneath its white collar characters.

The Temptation of St. Tony

A mourner at a funeral reflects that everything in the world is evil. A priest denies a feeling of any connection with God. A sinister figure of occult power mocks notions of goodness and laughs at protestations of love. And they all live in a bleak Estonian landscape of rocky expanses dotted with the occasional ultra-modernist structure (the incongruity of post-Soviet capitalism). Against such a backdrop, the semi-ironically nicknamed “Saint” Tony (Taavi Eelmaa), a factory manager with a cheating wife, a recently deceased father and a pitying love of dogs, searches for something like redemption (or at least some alternative to the void). The priest, a man blessed with superhuman omniscience, tells Tony the only thing he believes in is individual accountability, a lesson not lost on the industrial manager. But no matter if he’s reporting the discovery of a pair of severed hands to a provincial policeman only to narrowly escape ill treatment from that petty bureaucrat or trying to save a comely factory worker’s daughter from a sinister network of sex slavery for which he nearly suffers far greater punishment, Tony proves a perennially impotent figure. Whether or not one is inclined to take all this as allegory (at one point a nearly naked Tony wraps himself in the Estonian flag and runs across a snowy field), Veiko Õunpuu’s stunningly photographed second feature (shot in tactile black-and-white by Mart Taniel) presents a sardonically bleak picture of man’s existential, and Eastern European man’s political, state (though not untempered by ample doses of black humor). If the film works best in individual moments, there are few in the recent cinema as memorable as a posh dinner party where the guests go from discussing swinging to dancing drunkenly in various male-female-female combinations or, better, the climactic Eyes Wide Shut-inspired set-piece which takes the notion of the hidden sinister farther than even Kubrick (or Arthur Schnitzler) could have imagined.

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