by Andrew Wright

The Company

dir. Altman

Opens Fri Jan 15

Various Theaters

No great director has a higher whiff ratio than Robert Altman. That he is a great director goes without question--no other filmmaker can make it all seem so effortless, or better suggest life happening outside the frame--but the issue of quality control stubbornly persists. Perhaps his signature loosey-goosey freeform style has a deceptively narrow range, or maybe he trusts in improv more than he should. Whatever the reason, the fact remains: for every masterful Nashville, M*A*S*H and The Player, a Popeye or Dr. T & the Women lurks woefully in the wings.

The Company, Altman's 36th film (and his first after the ferocious comeback Gosford Park), lands firmly in the latter category: not as lethal with whimsy as, say, Ready To Wear, but a whisper-thin, woefully slight indulgence all the same. All the director's trademarks--invisible editing, doped-up zooms, overlapping conversations--are on display, but those looking for any sense of momentum will be disappointed. However you look at it, there just ain't much there.

Set within Chicago's Joffrey Ballet, the plot follows a talented second-banana (Neve Campbell, who co-wrote the screenplay) as she quickly moves up to the primary dancer spot in time for the big yearly performance. That's it really, aside from a small stab at a romantic subplot with a short-order cook (James Franco, doing what he can). Such narrative thinness could be forgiven if Altman's usual satirical chops or social incisiveness were present, but the director just doesn't seem to have much of an interest in the subject material, one way or the other.

The film isn't a complete dud--there's the occasional bit of breathtaking choreography, and Malcolm McDowell's hammy egotistical showrunner scores every single time he enters the frame. (Bonus points for the hysterically goofy final number, which comes off like a cross between The New Zoo Review and Ronnie James Dio.) Such moments render Altman's decision to coast and soak up the gorgeous lights and pretty people even more frustrating. As always, you'll be looking forward to his next one.