A year ago, in the run-up to the Academy Awards, a sort of zeitgeist bubble formed around Jason Reitman’s satirical romance Up in the Air, with George Clooney as a corporate downsizing consultant who flies around the country firing people. Reitman had punctuated his story with heartrending montages of Clooney’s white-collar victims as they expressed their fear, anger, and humiliation to the camera (some were actors, some were real people who’d lost their jobs). Coming at the end of a grim economic year, this was enough to get Up in the Air labeled “a movie for our times” by more than one critic, but the movie turned out to be a conspicuous loser on Oscar night (six major nominations, no awards). Academy voters may have found the subject too depressing, or perhaps they’d simply gotten wise to Up in the Air, which focused less on the unemployed than on a waggish Clooney living the middle-aged bachelor’s dream of swank hotels, rental cars, and uncommitted sex.

What Up in the Air only promised, The Company Men delivers. John Wells, a longtime writer-producer in series television (ER,The West Wing), makes his feature debut with a compelling story about three executives (Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones) who get canned after long careers with a manufacturing conglomerate called Global Transportation Systems (GTX). Affleck plays the central character, Bobby Walker, a suburban family man whose $180,000 salary supports a plush lifestyle, and Wells follows him over the course of a year as he suffers the humiliation, rage, despair, and self-loathing of a man cast out of his workplace. The movie sinks you deep into the shocking emotional experience of unemployment: the days suddenly robbed of structure, the old work relationships suddenly charged with resentment, the family bonds stretched to their limits. More than anything else, Wells reminds you how much people let their jobs define them, and how little can remain when their work identity is unexpectedly yanked away from them.

The movie is particularly acute in its observation of the workplace, and how the cold blade of a corporate downsizing slices into people’s friendships. When Bobby returns to his office after getting his pink slip, his coworker Phil Woodward (Cooper) walks in and presses him for information about whether anyone else is targeted. “Thanks for the sympathy, Phil,” Bobby cracks. No sooner has Phil sidled out the door than Bobby’s secretary steps in to ask awkwardly if he knows anything about her status. “You know, I didn’t ask,” he replies coldly. Taken aback, she ducks out of the room. Bobby saves his real venom for his boss, Gene McClary (Jones), one of the founders of the company and the head of Bobby’s division, who was kept in the dark about the downsizing and was out of town when Bobby was fired. Gene meets Bobby for dinner and gives him names of a few contacts, but Bobby cuts him dead. “Don’t bother reassigning my accounts,” he declares, stalking off. “I’m gonna steal ’em back from you when I get a job with your competition.”

Bobby soon finds himself in a sort of faux workplace: GTX has paid for three months of career counseling, and every day he reports to a crowded cubicle where he looks for work with other recent layoffs (two of them older folks from GTX). This little office in limbo soon takes on the bonhomie of a real one, and in one scene Bobby’s fellow job hunters share a laugh as they eavesdrop on his matter-of-fact phone call to Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), the woman at GTX who let him go: “Thanks for not returning any of my phone calls. If you do return my call, I would love to know why you fired me without any notice, you fucking cowardly bitch.” They all have someone like that in their lives, and at the end of the day they all knock off and go out for drinks. But even in this little artificial workplace, there’s the same status-seeking: Bobby asks about one of the tiny corner offices but learns that those are only for the higher-ups. Ultimately it’s taken by Phil Woodward, who arrives, along with Bobby’s old secretary, in another wave of GTX layoffs.

Back at home, Bobby can’t bring himself to relinquish the identity his job gave him: he implores his smart and devoted wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), not to tell anyone he’s been fired, and though she urges him to cut back on luxuries, he refuses to get the message. After their daughter reveals Bobby’s secret at a big family Thanksgiving, his annoying brother-in-law (Kevin Costner) offers him carpentry work but Bobby coolly brushes him off. The tension between Bobby and his wife comes to a head when he’s kicked off the golf course because Maggie hasn’t paid their club dues. He appears at her workplace in a lather. “I need to look successful, OK?” he tells her, as if explaining something to a child. “I can’t just look like another asshole with a resume.” She gives it to him straight: “You are just another asshole with a resume.” Indeed he is, and Wells seems to know just what that feels like: the endless rejection, the futile phone calls, the near-miss interviews, the past accomplishments dimmed by day after day of failure.

If the picture looks grim for Bobby at age 37, it’s even worse for Phil Woodward, who’s 20 years older. Having started on the factory floor as a welder and worked his way up to corporate, Phil is incensed at the thought that he might be fired from GTX. “I won’t let the bastards just kick me out after 30 years,” he tells his boss, Gene McClary. “I’ll take an AK-47 to this fucking place first.” When Phil winds up at the career counseling center with Bobby, his advisor urges him to delete “the ancient stuff” from his resume, to stop smoking, and to dye his hair. He pushes back, but she cuts him short: “I’m not the enemy, Phil. You’re pushing 60 and you look like hell. You’re gonna have a rough time out there.” Taking all this in, Phil composes himself and rather pathetically asks, “Could you show me to my office, please?” Wells perfectly visualizes his hopeless predicament when Phil appears for a job interview and finds a long line of applicants, all younger than he, waiting in the hallway.

Wells is lucky to have such a talented trio of actors, and Tommy Lee Jones is particularly good as the conscience-ridden McClary. When he learns about the first wave of layoffs, Gene barges into the office of Jim Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), his oldest friend and the company’s CEO, who tells him the stockholders are demanding more value for their shares. “Well, sell the fucking Degas,” Gene shoots back. Salinger is one of the highest paid executives in the U.S., earning $22 million—700 times what his lowest-paid employees take home—and Gene isn’t doing too badly either. Coming home that evening to a palatial house, he learns that his well-appointed wife has just paid $16,000 for an antique table, and the extravagance eats at him. A tiff between them, over whether or not she can use the corporate jet for a weekend in Palm Beach, reveals how privileged Gene is compared to Phil and Bobby. As he notes ruefully after the first wave of layoffs, his stock options are now worth a half million dollars more.

But even the cushion of wealth can’t help Gene when his contest with Salinger gets him ejected from the company. Gene moves out on his wife and in with his mistress—Sally Wilcox, the very woman who canned him. He putters around, drinks too much, wonders what to do with himself. He’s had offers to join boards, but the experience at GTX has sickened him. “I think I’m tired of boardrooms,” he tells his grown son. As Phil spirals downward, Gene tries to rescue his old friend. He comes looking for Phil at the career center one afternoon, finds him getting hammered at a bar nearby, and tries to talk him into seeing a matinee. Wells cuts away from the scene; whether or not they wind up going, it’s awful that these two men, still vibrant and capable, should be whiling away their weekday at a movie theater. They’re lost without their work.

For all its bite, The Company Men turns out to be much more hopeful than Up in the Air. “In America, we give our lives to our jobs,” declares the poster art for the new movie. “It’s time to take them back.” Wells clearly wants to remind people that there are things in life besides work, and this is especially evident in his treatment of Bobby’s family. Again and again they comes through for him. When Bobby is hectoring his son Drew about the Xbox they bought him for Christmas, Maggie takes Bobby aside and informs him that the boy, eager to be a man and share in the sacrifice, has returned the gift. This so humbles Bobby that he finally relents and approaches his brother-in-law for carpentry work. Before long Bobby has to move his wife and kids into his parents’ house, but the straitened circumstances seem to bring them closer together. Maggie keeps pointing him toward the positive. “You were never here before,” she says. “And now you are.”

The Weinstein Company appears to be positioning The Company Men as a dark horse for the Oscars, having opened it in New York and Los Angeles in December and widened its release the weekend before the nominations are announced. Whether a movie about unemployment can succeed with Academy voters remains to be seen, but few other movies in the running this year can claim to have taken on an issue so intractable and relevant to so many people. The Company Men dignifies the suffering of those who’ve lost jobs in the recession and pointedly asks whether this country can ever do right by its workforce. I have to admire a movie that digs into the lives of these people, especially when so many of them may be killing time at matinees.