EMMMY-FESTOONED television producer John Wells (ER, The West Wing, Southland) specializes in big, chewy, of-the-moment melodramas that wisely cut the soapier stuff with slow-burning character arcs. By comparison, The Company Men—Wells' feature-film debut as a writer/director—suffers notably from compression. Despite some terrific performances and an exceedingly timely subject, it ultimately feels like, well, a decent midseason pilot.

Set around a Massachusetts shipyard on the verge of assimilation into a larger company, the film follows a trio of upper-middle-class workers—Ben Affleck's cocky salesman, Chris Cooper's harried lifer, and Tommy Lee Jones' exec with a conscience—attempting to adjust to a new life after being shown the door. Lessons are learned, relationships are predictably sundered or strengthened, and a subplot involving Kevin Costner's salt-of-the-earth day laborer will have you fidgeting for the imaginary remote.

As a director, Wells composes his scenes with a journeyman's competence. (The fact that this flattish film was shot by Coen brothers regular Roger Deakins is perhaps The Company Men's biggest surprise.) Thankfully, he proves far more successful on the caustic dialogue front, particularly when said lines are uttered by Affleck in his likeable-bastard Changing Lanes mode, or with Jones' patented craggy sarcasm. (Cooper gets the majority of the dramatic speechifying, which is okay, because, you know, he's Chris Cooper.) As broad and unsurprising as The Company Men is, the filmmaker has put his finger on something frightening about the current state of the union, even if he can't quite diagnose it in the time allotted. A great film about white-collar panic may still come, but for now, this firmly middle-of-the-road movie sets the scene.