Looking ahead to his 79th birthday, Robert Altman has been plugging away on movie sets, manufacturing adroit classics, odious train wrecks, and—most often—ambitious mediocrities for more than five decades. Virtually every gracious label our culture has for individualists has been garlanded upon him at one point or another. But it may be his dogged prolificness that makes him so unreliable. Too easily inspired, too repetitive, and too seduced by sophomoric ideas, Altman would seem to rather make a crummy movie than make no movie at all. The Company, his 36th feature (not counting a slew of TV movies and miniseries), is Altman-doing-ballet, just as he’s done war hospitals, country music, health faddism, Yankee family rites, fashion, jazz, and Brit class combat. All of the familiar Altman tools—overheard dialogue, distracted zooms, multi-plane character clutter, persona thumbnailing—are out on the table, but his sardonic tone (which has varied from razor-sharp to rubber-chicken-ish) is not. The Company‘s not a farce, or comedy or drama, but essentially a doodle interrupted by nouveau ballet performances, the entire contraption assembled to please the ego of Neve Campbell.
Campbell co-wrote the screenplay (with Barbara Turner), co-produced, and stars (dancing passably enough) as a Joffrey Ballet ingenue wiggling her way toward a lead position; Malcolm McDowell, enunciating every line like a carnival barker with a ham-bone Chicago accent and literally walking in and out of scenes without any apparent purpose, is the ensemble’s autocratic director. Altman didn’t (or couldn’t) trick out the rest of the film as he often does with colorful cameos, but the anemic script hungers for a hectic Rene Auberjonois or Bob Balaban walk-on. Containing little we haven’t seen in dozens of behind-the-tutu documentaries, the scenes of rehearsal and choreographic tweaking can nonetheless be interesting in a working-reality manner, but The Company provides no connective tissue. The rigors of practice, the toll on body and soul—not on the radar. There’s not only no drama, there are no situations.
The ballet sequences (choreographed by Lar Lubovitch and Robert Desrosiers) fare slightly better, despite (or possibly due to) the fact that they are more or less wholly unrelated to the non-story. Altman makes the pedestrian mistake, as the far more cretinous Oscar-winners behind Chicago did, of assuming his audience has no genuine interest in dance per se, and so he cuts the performance sequences up, blows out images with spotlights, and shoots the dancers from the rafters. (Contrast this to the concert sequences in Nashville, in which the camera always sat in the bleachers.) Somehow, the post-Cunningham arrangements can still be arresting; the six-figures-with-endless-ribbon geometry behind the opening credits certainly clenches your optic muscles, and Davis Robertson’s solo improv in a darkened studio has a raw eloquence. But the climactic children’s ballet, so effusively designed it looks like a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis concert, is merely a costume maker’s indulgence. In between, Campbell’s pallid go-girl takes baths, cuddles with a young chef (James Franco), and hangs out in bars. And then the movie ends.