* * * 1/2
PG-13, 119 m
Starring Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell and James Franco. Directed by Robert Altman. Opens tomorrow.
“The Company” is one of those movies that, because of its ill-timed opening, will not be seen by the audience size it deserves. When the film opens tomorrow, it will be too late for serious consideration for the Academy Awards, and the praise it deserves has already been rationed by critics who are busy flinging theirs at Oscar bait.
“The Company” is about the world of professional dancing, with Chicago and its Joffrey Ballet Company as the setting and principle character. Neve Campbell plays Loretta “Ry” Ryan, a promising dancer primed for a principle part in the company, Malcolm McDowell is Alberto “Mr. A” Antonelli, the curt, patriarchal leader of it, and James Franco is Ry’s boyfriend Josh.
But neither Ry’s ascent to prominence, Mr. A’s domineering control of the company, nor their relationship is the centerpiece of the film. In fact, there is no plot or drama, or even performance, in the conventional sense of the words. Much of the film is comprised of extended, simply-filmed dance sequences performed by Campbell and the Joffrey.
In between those sequences are short, pointed scenes that outwardly seem improvised; their composition and execution, with hand-held digital camera, give the movie a documentary feel. This is deceiving. “The Company” is a movie sharpened to a point, with no excess dialogue or action, where every character and event has its place in creating an onscreen world.
Consider several of the supporting characters. There is Justin, the insecure boy whose body and will aren’t as strong as his father believes they are. There’s Deborah, the 43-year-old mainstay of the company who is civilly resisting changes in her repertoire for reasons other than posterity. There’s Ry’s ex-boyfriend, who is always in the background; despite the apparent inevitability of conflict, never once does their relationship take center stage.
At one point, a featured dancer named Suzanne snaps her Achilles tendon hours before a performance. Another movie might have used this to set up a dramatic catfight between star and understudy, or the suspenseful debut of a second-stringer in front of her doubting parents. In this movie, we see Suzanne later that night, quietly watching the show from the wings, with no slow zoom-in or swell of music. These characters are not cogs in the screenplay. They texture the story, and the film bristles with the detail and authenticity of their presence.
Against all odds, “The Company” makes only inferences, not indictments, about the competitive world of dance. At one point, Mr. A is refusing to listen to a dancer’s complaints. “What’s good for you is good for the company,” he says to him, and it is here the duality of the word becomes both evident and meaningful. Mr. A isn’t just the artistic director. He’s the chairman of the board. But never once do his students challenge or accuse him, or upstage him in a cathartic manner. The film is not about exposition. It’s about description.
It’s remarkable how the movie creates both a completely genuine feel and a sense of entertainment without reaching into the reserves of drama or suspense. This is a testament to Barbara Turner, who wrote the screenplay from Campbell’s story, and Robert Altman, cinema’s greatest eavesdropper.
The 79-year-old Altman admitted that before filming he had no experience with or knowledge of dance, but he does have experience with and knowledge of the creative process, which is what “The Company” is ostensibly about. Like Hollywood in “The Player,” or English society in “Gosford Park,” Altman takes the milieu of dance in Chicago and makes it resound beautifully on the screen, and his assurance radiates from it. “The Company” is the polished work of a craftsman, and even if it lacks excitement, it is a privilege to watch such purposeful direction.
But the most intriguing thing about the film is its end. “The Company,” having proceeded quietly throughout, arrives at a quiet but lovely conclusion - the olive in an otherwise dry martini of a movie. It’s not a perfect film, but it does have an ending perfect for it. The clues have been there all along, but it is during the final two minutes that we realize “The Company” has been leading us in an unexpected direction. It turns out that it is less about the dancing than about having someone waiting in the wings when you’re done.