Robert Altman likes his films to shape themselves.
The Kansas City, Mo., native equates his productions more with the freedom and improvisation of jazz and painting than, say, any kind of structured story. He is more interested in mood and motion rather than pre-mapped dialogue or dramatic arcs. He likes to discard scripts and be swept along by a flow of ideas or saddle up a situation and ride wherever it takes him and his cast. His mission is to illuminate behavior and to search for essence and all things organic, rather than composition and progression. His constant pipe dream is to find the monumental in the moment.
Sometimes, as with his 1971 film McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Altman tinkers with a script without losing its narrative brilliance. Sometimes he cobbles together a few scenes in films that more than redeem their preceding incoherence. Other times, like with The Company, Altman’s new valentine to the world of ballet, his films merely dogpaddle in place.
Altman has become known as an actor’s director whose method of madness drives a film toward encounter-group revelations and art rather than linearity and commerce. He does not tell stories so much as lead hunting expeditions into what he envisions as uncharted territory. With The Company, Altman returns to camp rather empty-handed after basically following his own footsteps into a backstage story of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet that is similar to—but not quite as disastrous as—Ready to Wear (a.k.a. Prêt-à-Porter), his 1994 wallow through the runway fashion scene.
The Company began as a story idea of former Canadian National Ballet School student and Party of Five actress Neve Campbell. During her Scream series press junkets, the lithe actress mistily spoke of making a future dance film. Eventually, screenwriter Barbara Turner (Pollack and Georgia), the mother of Jennifer Jason Leigh, penned a script for her that either had no story or was gutted, as Altman focused more on the full or abbreviated 10 ballets that monopolize most of the film.
Campbell stars as Loretta “Ry” Ryan, a blossoming ballerina talent who works nights as a waitress in a goth bar. We watch her warm up in mirror-walled rehearsal rooms, stretch on horizontal bars, serve drinks, come to the attention of artistic director Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell as an autocratic gatekeeper of the arts) and date a young chef (Spider-Man’s James Franco). She holds her own against the Joffrey dancers, especially during a “My Funny Valentine” nighttime number in Chicago’s Grant Park that taps into the operatic power of a sudden thunderstorm and downpour. But the supple thespian, who was born after Altman had made M*A*S*H and McDowell had indulged in “a bit of the old ultra violence” as “malchick” Alex in A Clockwork Orange, finds nothing in her offstage minutes on which to hang her hat.
McDowell is a delirious personification of political savvy and company clout as Antonelli. He both endears himself to and towers ominously over his surrounding charges, and he toys with his Italian accent the way a melodramatic villain curls his handlebar mustache. Franco leaves no memorable imprint on the film as either cook or lover.
Altman has filmed The Company in documentary-like fashion. It’s a common technique these days that has even surfaced with much more success on cable. It is a film rich in body mechanics and spectacle (the finale performance “Blue Snake” is a funny, breathtaking fantasy) and bankrupt in intimacy and depth.
I liked the ballets performed here by the 40-member Joffrey Ballet, but the scattered vignettes involving a doting stage dad, a Christmas-party roast of ballet management, a neck spasm, locker-room chatter, housing arrangements, toe blisters and an exploding Achilles tendon are a bore. The climatic “Blue Snake” ballet fantasy has the delicious smell of folly, an element that Hollywood long has affiliated with many Altman projects. It nearly makes one forget how empty the rest of the film really is. “It’s not the steps, babies,” Antonelli says to his dancers. “It’s what’s inside.”
Too bad Altman himself didn’t heed that advice.