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The Company (January 26/04)

Even by Robert Altman's standards, The Company is incredibly non-linear and meandering - and yet, it somehow works. There's something oddly engaging about the majority of the film, which follows several characters as the navigate the arduous world of professional ballet. The film likely marks Altman's most obtuse and plotless effort in ages, but the lifestyle and natural skill of these ballet dancers is fairly compelling in itself.

The Company stars Neve Campbell as Ry, a dancer with Chicago's famed Joffrey Ballet who's right on the precipice of becoming the lead performer in an upcoming production. We meet several other characters - including the company's tough director (played by Malcolm McDowell and Josh (James Franco), a chef that's started seeing Ry - but the film's emphasis is more on the various dance numbers that are either being performed publically or rehearsed privately.

The Company's rhythm becomes apparent almost immediately - filmed ballet performance, several minutes of dialogue, repeat - which lends the movie a dreamy quality, assisted by Altman's expectedly fluid camerawork. The film gets off to a fantastic start, with a dance number that looks like something out of Tron. Presumably, this was done intentionally as a means of drawing in viewers that ordinarily have absolutely no interest in ballet (ie me). Remarkably, there's only one performance that features dancers wearing tutus (and it's one of the shorter pieces); as though Altman and crew wanted to prove that this isn't the stodgy art form most of us envision upon hearing the word ballet.

But Altman (along with screenwriter Barbara Turner) shows no interest in appealing to an audience beyond the art house, even though the film contains a lot of elements with widespread appeal. Beyond the admittedly eye-catching dance sequences, there are some moments of drama that are unexpectedly involving. A dancer who breaks her Achilles tendon is clearly the most intriguing, as the woman has this look of pure dismay on her face the second the bone snaps. But Altman and Turner don't follow up on this, nor do they resolve any of the other plot strands (including the relationship between Ry and Josh). It's a frustrating but typically Altman-esque move.

Still, The Company remains worthwhile primarily for those hypnotic dance sequences and the performances. Campbell, in particular, does a fantastic job of portraying both the glamour and grunge of this lifestyle (she famously spent months training with the actual Joffrey Ballet to get in shape for the movie). And Franco is very effective in a rare non-intense role.

What it really comes down to is the fact that Altman has done the impossible: He's made ballet seem interesting. Though the movie never quite becomes anything more than a better-than-average time-waster, that alone is a major achievement.

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