Over the years, Robert Altman has given me a vast amount of pleasurable and/or thought-provoking moments at the movies. I’ve liked a lot of his work — and even loved some of it (Brewster McCloud, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Wedding, Popeye, Short Cuts, Gosford Park). I have also often found him overrated — M.A.S.H., Nashville, The Player. Yet the one thing that Altman has never done is bore me — and, yes, I have seen the misbegotten H.E.A.L.T.H. and Pret-a-Porter.
With The Company, however, Altman comes close to crossing that line. How much of this has to do with the subject matter, I can’t say. I suspect that if you’re a big admirer of modern ballet, this film is at least likely to be twice as interesting for you as it was for me. If it was a movie about an opera company — an art form I find more persuasive — I have a hunch that I’d be more in tune with it; since it isn’t, that remains only a guess. However, it is worth bearing my lack of fondness for modern ballet in mind when reading my comments on The Company.
That said, I can’t quite get past the feeling that the movie is a kind of convoluted vanity project for star and co-writer Neve Campbell (of the Scream series fame). From what I can discern, she spent two years studying dance, which is enough to put her in an educated-terpsichorean category, but not quite enough to land her toe-shoes a place with the Joffrey Ballet (whose members comprise most of the film’s dancers). It’s hard not to equate her pursuits with those of an enthusiastic, educated amateur casting himself in the lead of La Boheme and consigning Pavarotti to the chorus.
It’s not all for naught by any means. Campbell’s performance of a dance to a dirge-like rendition of “My Funny Valentine” during a storm is a pretty solid piece of footwork, of drama and of filmmaking. Unfortunately, this segment falls at about the movie’s halfway mark, and there’s not much to equal it further down the road (though the final “Blue Snake” ballet has its share of cinematically creative moments).
The problem really lies with the plot and the dialogue. The former — what there is of it — is a bit like that of 42nd Street, but with tutus; along with the dialogue, the plot apparently aims for a “slice of life” approach as a kind of scripted exercise in cinema verite. And while this may be a nod to realism, it isn’t very compelling. And to be fair, I’m not even 100 percent sure how realistic the end results are.
God knows, the actual real people in, say, D.A. Pennebaker’s Down From the Mountain have a lot more natural wit and eloquence than anything on display here. Even Malcolm McDowell — affecting a flat American accent as the manager of the ballet company — doesn’t manage to bring much to the proceedings.
Altman approaches the whole thing in his trademark off-the-cuff style, and it helps — though it doesn’t keep the film’s insubstantial plot or characters from threatening to evaporate. The Company is a game try, and it’s good to see Altman still at it, and still making his films his own way. But for me, at least, this one is a misfire.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke