At first, Robert Altman didn’t want to make The Company, his new picture set during a season with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. Even Altman, whose career has been based on rethinking cinematic narration, didn’t know what to make of Neve Campbell’s wisp of an idea for a movie about ballet dancers. Eventually, he found something in the story that intrigued him—or perhaps he just got tired of Neve hanging around his house all day, erasing the Matlock on his TiVo and bogarting his Metamucil.
But Neve was right to prod: The irascible 78-year-old director is one of the few filmmakers who could have made something watchable out of this strange little vanity project. There’s no real plot linking these snapshots of prepubescent 30-year-old women and shaved-chested boys who dance like winged demons. Playing a dancer-cum-cocktail waitress named Ry, Neve is the nominal lead as a company member who shines when another dancer hurts her neck, but the film is essentially a series of performances interspersed with 20 meaningless scenes and a handful of gut-punchingly good moments.
The Company was made for Campbell, but Altman has put his distinct spin on everything. He clings to his usual tropes: meandering zooms, odd cuts and an obsession with overheard extemporaneous dialogue. Altman still nurses the idea that improvisation is the height of realism, but it’s just not so. When you ask actors to improvise their lines, they usually forget how to talk and start to play people talking, which is just as artificial as asking Nora Ephron to write your scene.
It’s a bit surprising to see that Scream star Campbell, who co-wrote and produced, is big enough to get this small-audience picture off the ground. Campbell danced throughout her youth in Canada, and she seems to hold her own in the performance scenes, though most of us don’t know enough about ballet to determine whether this is the equivalent of those sports movies where the star shoots a basketball into the air, and a guy in an above-camera cherry-picker catches it and throws another ball through the hoop.
Her romance with a chef played by James Franco is a half-hearted affair. They spend much of their time in Ry’s gorgeous apartment with an El train clattering past, sharing food and making out. Several actual Joffrey dancers fill out the company, while Malcolm McDowell is absurdly cast as the artistic director. He plays an Italian-American from Chicago who still speaks with a British accent, for God’s sake, wearing a yellow scarf and barking out gay-fortune-cookie instructions such as, “Thinking the movement is not becoming the movement,” or, “You know I hate pretty.”
But there are moments to be savored, even for those who aren’t interested in dance. Ry’s big break comes at an open-air show in Grant Park, where a nighttime storm kicks up as she dances to “My Funny Valentine.” It’s stirring, as is the scene in which a dancer snaps her Achilles’ tendon in rehearsal without a single scream of pain. The final ballet, a children’s fantasia with elaborate costumes and sets, is just ridiculous enough to rivet you.
Even in its most inaccessible stretches, The Company has a quiet sophistication, an almost arrogant assurance of its artistic worth. That’s largely due to the charisma of Altman, whose long list of bad films invariably gets obscured by his handful of stunners when his career is discussed. The Company’s successes are odd and unexpected, the products of a clever marriage of artist and material. Still, they’re best enjoyed by those who already love dance, or by those who already love Altman.
THE COMPANY, **.5, Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco, Rated R