The Company

2006-03-30 12:40

Director Robert Altman has done it again - he's made a new kind of film. This time he proves that you can entertain despite, apparently, breaking the rules for what makes an "entertaining movie"! How does he do it? Well, to start with, he doesn't break all the rules.

He casts actors that you feel compelled to watch - the arresting Malcolm McDowell, the delectably dark-eyed Neve Campbell and the irresistible, James Dean-like James Franco (Sonny) - in the starring roles. He also makes sure the sexually attractive characters spend most of their onscreen time wearing very few clothes.

He makes you like his main characters and care for them, because they impress you with their courage. The attractively mature and gently principled dancer Ry (played by Neve Campbell, who gives what is probably her best screen performance) is admirably juggling a waitressing job, a love life, a demanding mother and her dreams of making it in the ultra competitive world of professional ballet.

Altman has made a beautiful film. He really uses his medium, allowing the camera to take you places you couldn't go with the naked eye if you went to a live ballet. Like right between a dancer's lycra-clad legs as she does the splits upside down as two men hold her, or under the noisily thumping leather-clad feet of a girl in a tutu who, from the far away seats, just seems to be weightlessly leaping and silently landing.

But The Company has drawn criticism from many because - they say - it doesn't bother to tell a story. Is this true? Only if a story is a series of events that draws some kind of conclusion about life. Only if a story is only about keeping you in suspense and then releasing you feeling that something has been learned or understood or perhaps more accurately, taught to you. It's true that the romantic subplot is half hearted - you never quite understand why Ry loves her boyfriend. Ry is never in career crisis, nor is she making it big. The film at first appears to meander aimlessly from event to event to event...

But when you look more closely, you'll see that the real story is all in the detail. It lies in the beautifully shot dances themselves; condensed and exhilarating five minute plots with beginnings, endings and middles. So there may be no one grand overall plot, because there are so many sub-plots. In answer to what happened, you'd really have to answer "too much" not "too little".

The plot of the characters lives is, by contrast to the dance plots, highly lifelike - inconclusive, beautiful, frustrating, exhilarating and mundane. But what makes this romantic? The visible, sincere commitment of the characters to their art, and the realistic portrayal of what it takes for them to keep creating.

Like the final dance (the only one without much plot) the film is about natural rhythms in life. The divinity, so to speak, is in the detail, not the false greater order we've come to expect superimposed, from big budget, big name movies.

To call the movie experimental would be unfair, unless it's an experiment where the result was expected. Self indulgent? Perhaps, but some people get away with that, too. Altman and Campbell certainly have, with the help of wonderful art direction by Craig Jackson, which washes the many scenes with light and colour that makes them a dreamlike, sensuous whole.

- Jean Barker

What other critics thought:

This really is nothing new, and the cliched dialogue and one-note characterizations may have you wishing Altman had decided to make a documentary instead.
- Jeff Vice,

"...enjoyably lithe and droll yet somehow almost water-soluble; it seems to dissolve onscreen."
- Elvis Mitchell, New York Times

"Altman, showing the ardor and assurance of a master, pulls us into his film with seductive power. You won't want to miss a thing."
- Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

Not your average "Fame" story, Robert Altman's movie is about how it's the small things in life, and the big dreams, that matter. It's also, quite simply, about making a very beautiful movie.

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