Thirty-some years after he gave us the last great innovation in the raw material of cinema, Robert Altman still has the ability to make great movies. You only need watch his natty, class-conscious thriller Gosford Park, or the brutal Short Cuts, to know that the old white-haired lion hasn't yet lost his mane.
When Altman, as a Hollywood-old man of 45, made M*A*S*H in 1970, he used overlapping dialogue tracks to capture the exhilarating sound of a swarming human environment. He continued this technique throughout the '70s, and in 1975 he released the glorious panoply of Nashville. Naturally, it's been hit-and-miss since then, but who cares: This great artist could have retired 25 years ago and we'd still have his best work to absorb us.
Even by Altman's peripatetic narrative standards, The Company is a slight affair, both as drama and as a study of people busily going about their kaleidoscopic joie de vivre. It takes place among the members of the Joffrey Ballet Company of Chicago, and many of company's dancers play either eponymous characters or differently named characters just like themselves.
The sojourners among them are two people created for the movie. Ry -- portrayed by Neve Campbell, who trained as a dancer before acting stardom in TV's Party of Five -- is an emerging star of the company, and so the object of some envy and jealousy among her peers. The Joffrey's leader, Alberto (Malcolm McDowell), is a transparent flatterer, a creative flake, and a snappish benevolent dictator who orders an end to his colleagues' staff meetings when he needs to use the conference room for a more important meeting of his own. There's also some romance for Ry in the body of Josh (James Franco), a good-natured sous chef at Chicago's fancy-schmancy Marche restaurant.
From a storm-swept outdoor summer concert on the lake to the start of a new calendar year, The Company follows these people through their artistic season, which allows Altman to reserve us the best seat in the house for half a dozen pieces that push ballet right up to the edge of modern dance. He photographs these performances from above, below, up close and far away, focusing on feet, faces and full bodies. The music that accompanies them is suitably eclectic: Elvis Costello sings "My Funny Valentine," Yo-Yo Ma does Bach, and David Lynch contributes lyrics to a melody by Angelo Badalamenti.
This is all quite lovely, especially if you like ballet just enough never to want to actually attend one. But it's not very absorbing, unlike Altman's better slices of life. The Company survives strictly on atmosphere, and as its story winnows through some rather routine interpersonal conflicts, the blowups between its characters are thoroughly anticlimactic, lest some one or some thing come out of solution and rise to the top. Still, you have to admire Altman for taking on a movie where the most dramatic moment occurs when a dancer's Achilles tendon gives out in the middle of a rehearsal. And it's somehow appropriate that you can hear the "snap" when it happens.