Robert Altman's "The Company" is another welcome surprise from the most perversely unpredictable of modern American movie masters.
Working with producer-star Campbell (an ex-ballet dancer and the project's spearhead) and with his longtime friend and collaborator, screenwriter Barbara Turner ("Georgia"), Altman has wrought something new for him: a deceptively low-key tale of education, artistry, music, change and the dance that guides us -- seductively, casually -- into that life and into its music.
Against a backdrop of pristine rehearsal rooms, Chicago landmarks (including Grant Park and the Auditorium Theater), gritty hangouts and a dusty apartment -- with the elevated train racketing by outside the window -- we see Campbell's Ryan (or "Ry") living her life and learning her craft.
Things happen. Ry is a player, part of the company. Moving constantly to music -- often to jazz and pop renditions of "Company's" signature tune, "My Funny Valentine" -- we see her practicing points and knee-bends, toiling at a "day" job (nightclub waitress), meeting and bedding a lover (James Franco as James Dean-ish local cook Josh) and coping, as everyone does, with the tirelessly energetic, devious machinations of the company director, Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell).
Altman's style here suggests a modern "fly on the wall" documentary far more than a classic ballet movie melodrama such as "The Red Shoes" or "The Turning Point." He shows us the making of art as a profession, with dance as an often mundane but sometimes spectacularly rewarding job with its cycle of growth, education, triumph or failure, haunted by the specter of age and injury.
In showing all this, Altman, often plays deliberately against his own strengths. Instead of another juicy actors' ensemble -- like 2002's "Gosford Park," "Nashville" and most of his best films -- he has turned "Company" into a highly naturalistic, de-dramatized look at a real-life artistic company, the fabled Joffrey, with a cast composed largely of non-actors (Joffrey dancers) and dominated by two characters: Ry and Antonelli (who is modeled on the Joffrey's real-life head, Gerald Arpino.)
Instead of the usual savage Altman deconstruction of some engagingly corrupt community, he calmly celebrates an alternative band of art and artists, thriving in the more mundane and compromised world around it. Instead of his trademark slashing verbal wit and sarcasm (present but monopolized by McDowell's Antonelli), "The Company" delights in non-verbal communication, the alchemy of gesture. And instead of celebrating actors -- the prime raison d'etre of Altman's film art from "M*A*S*H" on -- "The Company" celebrates dancers and the dance, the union of body and music.
"The Company" is something entirely new for Altman, a world away from the intricate, showy, theatrical brilliance of his last masterpiece, "Gosford Park." The beautifully shot and cut dance scenes -- stunningly choreographed by Arpino and others to Chopin, Glazunov, Van Dyke Parks and others -- are balanced by backstage drama that seems tentative, rough, "accidental."
Showing the young Joffrey company, which naturally isn't as adept at creating character as his all-star pro casts, Altman tends to avoid his usual bemused, iconoclastic humor. He lets the dancers be themselves, which is the point. Even for some Altman fans, that may be unsettling.
But this is a movie that, like almost all Altman films, improves and deepens with each viewing. At its best, especially in those wondrous dance numbers, so marvelously shot and cut by Altman's own company, the film achieves that poetry of motion and lyrical delight musical films always strive for but rarely capture. Like Ry, Altman is doing his job -- and his business, like the Joffrey's, is delight. "The Company," a funny valentine by an old master, woos us into the dance.
Directed by Robert Altman; written by Barbara Turner; photographed by Andrew Dunn; edited by Geraldine Peroni; production designed by Gary Baugh; music by Van Dyke Parks; produced by David Levy, Joshua Astrachan, Neve Campbell, Altman, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Dec. 25. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: PG-13 (Some sexual scenes and language).
Ryan ("Ry") - Neve Campbell
Alberto Antonelli - Malcolm McDowell Josh - James Franco Harriet - Barbara Robertson Edouard - William Dick Susie - Susie Cusack Ry's mother - Marilyn Dodds Frank Ry's father - John Lordan The Dancers - The Joffrey Ballet Company