Back in the 80s, movies about excess were (understandably) the norm. Wall Street, Less Than Zero, The Secret of My Success, and dozens more all spotlighted the high-rolling lifestyle of the ‘haves’. These days, though, make a movie that glorifies opulence, and you run the risk of severe backlash (Hello, Sex and the City 2!).

Sure, there are plenty of wealthy people around in 2011, but in this economy, you’re much more likely to hear about someone losing their job than you are to see them sit down for a $500 lunch at the club.

So The Company Men, the brainchild of ER creator John Wells, is a bit of a risk. Tracing the paths of executives at a big Boston-based company as they get pink slips and have to consider selling their Porsche and the Degas, it may be initially off-putting to some, but no matter the socio-economic class of the characters here, the story resonates.

In a time of the year when movies are often marked by sophomoric humor and forgettable plotlines, The Company Men stands head-and-shoulders above anything currently showing. It’s a welcome, refreshing bit of high-quality movie-making packed with stellar work by its cast.

Ben Affleck is Bobby Walker, a 12-year veteran of global transportation giant GTX. One day he drives into work (yes, in his Porsche), and an hour later he’s driving home again– the victim of the latest round of corporate layoffs. Initially he’s in denial, telling his wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) that he doesn’t want to tell anyone he’s unemployed. He grudgingly heads over to the company-provided job placement center, where he refuses to participate in any of the Kumbuyah-ish exercises designed to boost confidence. He wants to keep his membership at the country club, so he can exude the air of a successful executive. Only when his three months’ severance is almost up, does he start to realize that this may be serious… so he decides that hosting a rummage sale in their driveway is appropriate.

Meanwhile, Bobby’s boss Gene (Tommy Lee Jones) survives the carnage at GTX only to start feeling pangs of guilt, since he, with his best friend and current GTX CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), started the company and turned it from a tiny business into a multi-national with a $100 stock quote. Shortly after the layoffs, Gene is dismayed as he returns home to find his wife has purchased a $16,000 dining room table.

The third of ‘the company men’ is Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a sixty-year-old executive who, while safe at first, doesn’t survive the second round of cuts. And while 40-year-old Bobby has a reason (with his experience and relative youth) to be a little optimistic at finding a job, downtrodden Phil just can’t. With one daughter in the Ivy Leagues and another on the way, he becomes a broken man, reduced to dying his hair and begging for an international sales job perfectly suited for a 22-year-old fresh out of college.

Across the board, the actors in The Company Men turn in performances that are among the best of their respective careers. While it’s difficult at first to watch Affleck’s Bobby insult a job interviewer because he believes the job is ‘beneath him’, it’s not out of character. And later, when he berates manual labor to a manual laborer (who also happens to be his brother-in-law), he may not come across as especially likeable, but there’s nothing in Affleck’s performance that doesn’t feel achingly real. Jones’ character, though immensely more sympathetic, is no less powerful. There’s more expression in his sad-sack, puppy dog eyes than in many actors’ entire performances so far this year. And Cooper, consistently among the most underrated actors at work today, does brilliant work here, particularly in a scene where he begins chucking rocks at the GTX headquarters building.

Despite the title, the female leads in The Company Men shine just as brightly and shouldn’t be overlooked. DeWitt’s heartfelt performance as Maggie balances Bobby’s cold, cocky exterior perfectly, and Maria Bello does a nice job as the HR exec that has to hand out the pink slips.

First-time director Wells shows his TV roots by putting together what could have just as easily been an HBO original, at least visually. There’s nothing ‘big-screen’ about The Company Men, but it’s not really a problem. This is a character-driven piece, full of honest performances and well-worth our time as the first must-see movie of 2011.

And just as much as Wall Street was a parable for the late 80s, The Company Men will, years from now, only remind us how dire things (hopefully) used to be.

4/5 stars