I remember, a few years back, reading a story about her former ballerina status, and her ambitions to bring the "true story" of a dance company to the screen. I also remember thinking, "Oh great, another useless dance movie."
Props to Campbell for getting a big director (Robert Altman) and keeping those dancing legs limber, because The Company, which she produced and conceived, certainly has its merits and is more than your average dance film. While it isn't the most focused film in the world--and it's hard to really decipher a story amongst all the gabbing and dancing--it's fun to watch. Campbell quite honestly could be one of the strongest and best-dancing mainstream actresses to ever put her work to screen.
Altman, a notoriously inconsistent director, winds up being the perfect choice for this film. His "Let's turn the camera on and see what happens!" approach works fine for this subject, allowing for a sort of backstage intimacy among Chicago's Joffrey Ballet Company. Of course, Altman has managed some past genius with simple human communications (the chatter during surgery in MASH comes to mind), and the conversations between dancers here feels real. Some of Altman's projects come off as nothing but improvisational exercises for game actors, but this film actually manages a sense of structure and purpose among the freeform line deliveries.
That purpose is to show, without all the melodrama and backstage backstabbing, the rigors of the dancer's life. Lorretta "Ry" Ryan (Campbell) is an up-and-coming company performer who gets her big shot when a fellow dancer suffers mild neck spasms. She steps in unceremoniously to take the part, dances it during an exquisite outdoor performance that's threatened by a rainstorm, and temporarily catches the attentions of Alberto (a nicely cast Malcolm McDowell), the company's no-nonsense leader.
We slowly get a glimpse of Ry's background. She has a strange, domineering mother (Marilyn Dodds Frank) who chastises her for not striving harder for dancing notoriety, but sings her daughter's praises for keeping red wine in the fridge. While Ry is part of one of the world's most renowned dance troupes, she must wait tables wearing a trashy wig to pay the rent. And as far as romance goes, we see mere glimpses of her budding relationship with a local chef (James Franco).
The story is told with little brush strokes rather than slopping everything onto the canvas. Dancing remains at the forefront, and Campbell is a mesmerizing performer. She and Altman don't settle for dance doubles or pushing Ry's character into the backdrop. Campbell is up front, taking all the risks, delivering some of the more beautiful dance scenes ever put to screen. It's quite the accomplishment.
While many of the dance numbers are spectacular, especially an opening sequence with streamers and Campbell's outdoor dazzler, the final big number is a dud. The film has a long buildup to something called "The Blue Snake," an overblown production featuring garish sets and costumes, and uninteresting choreography. The ridiculousness of this number reminds less of graceful, classic productions and more of stuff like the Sodom and Gomorrah number at the climax of Staying Alive. It's the film's largest flaw.
While that last number is bad, it doesn't destroy an otherwise enjoyable experience. Considering the many Altman films, with the likes of The Player and Short Cuts representing his greatest and Gosford Park and Kansas City the worst, The Company falls somewhere in between. Actually, I'd put it right along his Popeye, a concept film that is perhaps a partial failure, but still an enjoyable effort.