I believe that to make a socially conscious film, you really have to capture the state of the world around you at the time. I believe you have to be sure you are accurately showing the common experience faced by many and still express some very specific emotions so we as the audience can react. When someone says "socially conscious filmmaking" I think of Sidney Lumet's 1976 film Network or Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing. The last movie I saw that I felt really did a great job of being so very in-the-moment was Jason Reitman's 2009 film Up in the Air. Writer and director John Wells, in his debut film, tries to make such a film. He comes up a little short, but he certainly gives it a good try (some of his writing and directing credits from television include working on ER, The West Wing, and Southland as well as adapting Shameless from the UK, and creating the shows Third Watch and Smith).
The beginning of the film shows the firing of Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) who was a successful corporate salesman at GTX, a transportation manufacturing company. Also in danger of being let go are Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). Phil has hit the age where his life is his job and Gene thinks he will be fine since he is best friends with the company's owner (Craig T. Nelson) and is having an affair with the woman in charge of the lay-offs (Maria Bello). In the meantime, Bobby returns home to his wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and as the film goes on, he finds himself working under Maggie's brother (Kevin Costner) and installing drywall. Quite a shift, but is it supported with the right emotional tone?
We should feel really bad for these characters, but the film came off to me that they were more directionless without a job than in dire need of financial support. By two thirds into the film, Bobby has only moved from upper middle class to middle class. Towards the end is when he starts to get desperate, but that happens right when he finds a way to cope with his problem. I'm not saying we needed to see these characters on the streets and panhandling, but I at least needed something more than what I witnessed to give an emotional meaning to these characters and their actions. Yes, Bobby has to turn to his family for help and Gene takes another look at his marriage, but the only character that really seems the most desperate and therefore the most convincing is Phil who turns to alcohol and throwing rocks at his former office's windows.
This all leads to some typical scenes where characters argue with those closest to them and all that does it lead to the occasional but quickly resolved conflict. An example would be that in the beginning of the movie, Bobby is part of a motivational exercise that he doesn't participate in, but later in the movie (and this is in the very traditional and typical trailer for this kind of film) he repeats it triumphantly. That moment doesn't work for me because the cliches of the "guy makes it through a tough time" story just doesn't connect me emotionally to these characters and especially not to their actions.
On the plus side, the obviously talented cast does a good job in their roles. Ben Affleck works best when he is part of an ensemble where other actors help carry the weight of the story (like in Hollywoodland and The Town). I also normally can't stand Kevin Costner, but he has such a minimal part in the movie that we don't spend much time with his character. There are some very well edited montages (the opening scene, golfing, playing football with unemployed co-workers) and the score was appropriate. Past that, this film is unfortunately forgettable and didn't leave much of an impact on me. Commenting on things as tangible as the economy and the job market needs to simply be done with more feeling.