POSTED ON FEBRUARY 23, 2011:
Unknown is well-known and mostly fun, The Company Men isn't quite a corporate takeover
Back when The Sixth Sense came out it seemed that, for filmgoers, there was an unspoken contest: at what point during the film did you realize Bruce Willis was dead? It felt like a bar for how attentive and/or how clueless one might be. Figuring it out in the first fifteen minutes somehow bestowed a sense of superiority over those that had the light bulb go off over their heads in the last fifteen; at least for a certain segment of snob that craves any sense of superiority at all. They usually become critics.
But the clues in The Sixth Sense were there, at least. The new, Liam Neeson-starring, Euro-thriller, Unknown leaves little to chance in terms of revealing its ultimate twist. Given some thought, there wasn't really any one subtly revealing shot or scene that would give it away, even to someone looking for it (and I wouldn't give it away if there were). Whether that could be considered cheating probably depends on if you know some annoying film geek who figured it out before you did. I didn't. It must be cheating.
Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris (of which he emphatically assures everyone -- a lot), an American botanist visiting Berlin with his stunning wife Elizabeth (January Jones) for an international biogenetic conference at a posh hotel. Upon check in, Harris misses a bag with all his ID and information. Suspecting he's left it at the airport he hops a cab driven by a gorgeous Bosnian named Gina (Inglourious Basterds' Diane Kruger) and a freak accident (or is it?) involving an airborne refrigerator later and their cab is sinking in a river. Harris, rescued by Gina, wakes up in a hospital with a bump on his head and some fuzzy memories.
When he finally puts together enough to remember where the conference is he goes to find Elizabeth, only to discover she doesn't know who he is and, in fact, her husband Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn now) is the respected botanist standing right yonder. My words, not hers. Unable to convince the police of his identity, and finding himself pursued by assassins, Harris searches his fractured memory for clues as he and Gina employ the help of a retired Stasi agent (Bruno Ganz, staying awesome) to get to the bottom of the mystery. As it happens, that's a twisty road.
Atmospheric Action. Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra keeps a propulsive yet deliberate pace and shoots the action with a confident eye and a good sense of spatial coherence. The chilly, well-composed cinematography by Flavio Labiano is gorgeous to look at.
Unknown was quite good, until it stopped being good. The first two acts are a coolly shot, suspenseful mystery with plenty of atmosphere. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who fulfilled the vicarious fantasies of so many by slaughtering Paris Hilton in 2005's House of Wax) keeps a propulsive yet deliberate pace and shoots the action with a confident eye and a good sense of spatial coherence. The chilly, well-composed cinematography by Flavio Labiano (of the excellent Spanish sci-fi indie, Timecrimes) is gorgeous to look at and the script, penned by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwall -- based on the novel "Out of My Head" by Didier Van Cauwelaert -- has some nice touches and an Eastern European flavored Cold War vibe updated for the Monsanto generation, with only occasional dips into silliness; at least until the twist.
It's the twist (which I assume is the same as the book) that really deflates the proceedings. Perhaps that's just the natural release of tension that comes with a mystery's resolution, but the bottom really falls out here as the film shows its hand to be little more than a knock off of a more popular action icon who shall go unnamed. That's a letdown considering that Unknown starts out being compelling enough to inspire one to come up with plenty of their own guesses to the mystery, many of them, I'm sure, being more interesting than the answer we get.
Neeson is fine as Harris, and those looking for a little Taken-style asskickery get their fix here. There was something a bit hilarious after hearing him say "But I'm Dr. Martin Harris" for the thousandth time, a silliness the film tips its hat to in one scene where both the Harris' try to convince a researcher they are the real Harris. There's a cloying naiveté to the character that's ingrained in the script, but Neeson himself is as agreeable to watch as ever.
Diane Kruger brings her A-game for the role of Gina, a smart, sexy and good-hearted illegal immigrant who proves to be just as resourceful as Harris at staying alive. Where Neeson brings what you expect, Kruger shines in a way that makes it easy to see what Tarantino sees in her.
January Jones comes off a bit flatter in comparison, though that is by design, while Aidan Quinn reminded me that I can't remember a damn thing he's been in since Desperately Seeking Susan. Bruno Ganz's (The Boys from Brazil) all too brief supporting role finds the German legend classing things up with his still formidable screen presence. One scene between Ganz and Frank Langella (continuing a recent trend of top billed actors being in a film for ten minutes) is almost enough alone to make Unknown worth seeing.
And I guess it kind of is. Despite the sense of disappointment I got from the resolution, its descent from interesting suspense-thriller tropes to derivative ones, it was still a mostly fun, if familiar, ride.
The Company Men
Back in the 80s there was a film called How to Beat the High Cost of Living. In it, a group of upper-middle class suburban housewives, led by Jane Curtain, conspire to steal a few hundred thousand dollars from a giant lottery ball located inside of a mega-mall. It was (the only) one film I can remember of a small series of recession-related movies that came out of the early Reagan years, usually comedies, using the shitty economy as a backdrop for sympathetic working types fallen on hard times.
And while The Company Men is closer to a Mametian tale of the underappreciated problems of well-off white people than a populist Take This Job and Shove It bubba comedy, its pedigree as a film capitalizing on real-world economic turbulence to mark its place in time is clear (along with the more entertaining, Up In the Air). Another difference is that it's a little easier to sympathize with people getting screwed by the man when they reside on the same socio-economic plane as you. It's harder to generate pity for someone being forced to give up their golf club membership.
Corporate Ladder. The Company Men’s greatest strength is in its performances. Ben Affleck’s Walker comes off as a bit of an asshole, but he really lets the underlying emotional strife simmer nicely and he has some wonderful supporting players to work against. Tommy Lee Jones owns the role of Gene McClary with every grizzled line that comes out of his mouth and creases his hangdog, world-weary face.
Yet somehow, The Company Men mostly pulls that off, albeit while rarely ever generating the sense that rock bottom for its characters is a very long drop.
Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is a corporate sales wonk employed by a maritime shipping company who suddenly finds he's been let go due to being a redundancy in the eyes of upper-management downsizers. Given a 12-week severance and a cubicle at a paid job placement firm with a bunch of corporate cast-offs, Walker sees his nearly entitled sense of self-confidence take increasing damage as he runs up against the indifference and red-herrings offered by prospective employers; until he's finally forced to consider working for his brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), a salt-of-the-earth construction company owner.
Meanwhile, Walker's former boss, Gene (Tommy Lee Jones) rides a moral line between the health of the company he helped build and the single-minded mission of its president (Craig T. Nelson) to up the stock price, no matter the questionable ethics or the cost in employees. Business being business, you have to keep the stockholders happy.
The Company Men's greatest strength is in its performances, followed closely by master cinematographer Roger Deakins' immaculate photography. Affleck's Walker comes off as a bit of an asshole, but he really lets the underlying emotional strife simmer nicely and he has some wonderful supporting players to work against.
Tommy Lee Jones owns the role of Gene McClary with every grizzled line that comes out of his mouth and creases his hangdog, world-weary face. Chris Cooper ups that ante as Phil Woodward, an out to pasture executive whose desperation and inability to adapt are palpable in every move he makes on screen. Costner is fine as Jack, while Maria Bello fills out the cast as Sally Wilcox, a corporate executioner whose pragmatism begins to further crack with each pink slip she hands out.
First time writer/director -- and longtime television vet -- John Wells makes his feature debut here and he points the camera in the right places and lets his actors shine. The script itself is good, but it lacks any real punch, instead weaving its tale in a matter-of-fact way that he follows through on with equally matter-of-fact direction. It doesn't really pop, though the performances and photography certainly do, and the conflicts suffered by his main characters never really achieve the feeling of dreadful weight that would have made the film feel more substantial.
Despite that, The Company Men's embarrassment of riches in terms of performances make up for the weaknesses on the creative side; aiming its message of transition, adaptation and fortitude straight at Oscar's heart.
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