- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

The best thing about Robert Altman’s new film, “The Company,” is the opening credits. Well, not the credits themselves but the scene unrolling behind them of a zippy dance involving tapes manipulated onstage like a giant cat’s cradle. If it is not great art, it is at least fast-paced, well made and brightly inventive.

“The Company,” which opens in Washington today, employs Altman trademarks — using nonactors and layering conversations — to give the film the look and feel of a documentary. Dramatically, the film consists of brief snatches of dancers from Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet in rehearsals, classes, parties, vying for plum roles, being rejected, injuring themselves. We see their close camaraderie, their insecurities and loneliness.

The one thing we don’t see is what underlies and makes up for all the pain, struggle and heartbreak: the intrinsic rewards of being involved in an important creative enterprise.

The diffuse nature of the film’s documentary-style snippets precludes a strong impact, although some focus is given by actress Neve Campbell’s role as an aspiring member of the dance group, with a nicely underplayed scene where she begins a romance with James Franco in a pool hall.

Balancing that restraint is an overplayed sequence where Miss Campbell and Joffrey dancer Domingo Rubio perform an inconsequential duet (to “My Funny Valentine”) in an open-air theater as thunder and lightning flash and the audience hoists up umbrellas so that no one behind the first row could have seen anything.

Improbable as this is, it is further hyped by the company’s director rushing backstage afterward, exclaiming, “The storm, the rain and the wind — so theatrical.”

Mr. Altman admits that his dance knowledge is scanty and thinks that his movie should not be judged on its dance values. From a director who complains that studios are not concerned about art but only with the bottom line, one might have hoped that he would approach another art form with more insight.

Faced with a series of slick, second-rate dances, Mr. Altman gives them his best shot (no pun intended) viewed from cameras placed at all angles including overhead, sometimes seemingly in the midst of the action.

We hear a pretentious explanation that figures in a ballet are dressed in black and white “representing the dualism of the world we live in,” or the artistic director saying, “If you can dance allegro, you can dance anything.” What’s that supposed to mean?

There is a grandiosity about this character, played by Malcolm McDowell, not justified by the achievement of his modest company. He has the air of the autocratic Diaghilev figure in “The Red Shoes,” minus the elegance or taste.

Mr. McDowell’s character is supposed to have some charm, but I found him a blowhard, who drops into rehearsals, makes a few fatuous remarks, and instructs his dancers by shouting, “Move it, hit the wall. You look like you have a load in your pants.”

The movie’s finale is a number called “Blue Snake,” a dance Miss Campbell saw as a child and loved. Mr. Altman thought its bright costumes and towering scenery would provide a colorful ending, but the dancers must have hated being encased in shaggy red monkey costumes complete with masks.

Both Mr. Altman and Miss Campbell have expressed a hope that their film might attract people to dance. If “The Company” had looked at the glorious dance that exists today instead of searching for a way to tart up mediocre choreography, that might have been the case.

Mr. Altman seems indifferent to the reality that there might be at least as much struggle for artistry in the dance world as there is among idealists in the world of film.

If he had used the plight of these dancers to echo his own strongly held beliefs that independent filmmakers have to struggle against the infidels, we might have seen something worth getting excited about.

A documentary-style film about ballet dancers that ignores their yearning for a kind of artistic transcendence might be “realism.”

Let’s hope so, because it certainly is not the truth — at least not all of it.

**

TITLE: “The Company”

RATING: PG-13 (some profanity and sexual situations)

CREDITS: Directed by Robert Altman; written by Barbara Turner; story by Ms. Turner and Neve Campbell.

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

WHERE: Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema, Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5, Cinema Arts Theatre.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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