Wednesday, September 4, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Unbeatable "Company" does not an important political drama make

The Company You Keep (2013)
125 min., rated R.

Marking 77-year-old Robert Redford's ninth directorial work, "The Company You Keep" makes sure we're in esteemed company with a revolving door of unbeatable actors, both young and old. For that, it's more of an ensemble showcase than a crackerjack, socially charged thriller about the leftish anti-war group that began a revolution in the 1970s. However, not even a filmmaker like Redford should ever underestimate a good script because, as written by Lem Dobbs (who adapted Neil Gordon's 2003 novel), the film could have been more involving and provocative than it really is. This being Redford's third picture to join the fray where he jumps on a soapbox—like, 2007's "Lions for Lambs" and 2010's "The Conspirator," for instancethere is a plus side: his latest is decidedly the less narratively stodgy, more cinematic and ever so slightly less talky of the three. 

After Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a former member of the Weather Underground, gives herself up when charged for a bank robbery that left one guard dead thirty years ago, her fellow activists go on the run. Jim Grant (Redford), an upstate New York lawyer who's widowed and now takes care of his 11-year-old daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho), has his cover blown by dogged Albany journalist Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf). As it turns out, Jim Grant is really just an alias for Nick Sloan, one of Sharon's co-conspirators. Wanted for the same murder, Nick arranges the dropping off of young Isabel to his brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) to go off and find identity-shifting Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), Nick's former lover who has unfinished business with him and could clear his name. Meanwhile, there are so many more characters and so little time.

With a slow and steady hand at the helm, Redford gives it everything he has, making a low-key, middlebrow drama for adults. Though Redford and Dobbs flirt with ideas about civil disobedience and wisely don't paint the WU members and their cause in the broadest, most general strokes, there really isn't much to chew on when it's all over. Having neither the thrills, thoughtfulness, or emotional weight, "The Company You Keep" does very little with its radical subject in exchange for a series of one-on-one conversations and sudsy mysteries that don't make for very stimulating drama. It either leaves characters underrealized or loses sight of them completely just when they're getting interesting. If one thing is for sure, the film can't be docked for its performances. 

Redford and Christie are both looking their age, so much that the story's "thirty years ago" lapse in time doesn't really hold water, but neither of them have lost their screen presence. Most surprisingly, a bespectacled LaBeouf does a credible job as the pushy reporter, and 13-year-old Evancho, whose voice took the world by storm on TV's "America's Got Talent," is a total natural. Sarandon opens the film with a powerful silence, sells a riveting monologue, and then's she gone way too soon. As usual, Brit Marling is as captivating a presence as any of her seasoned co-stars, lending conviction to her every scene as someone's daughter. Also, there are enough eclectic, letter-perfect supporting players to fill a Garry Marshall holiday event, including Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Terrence Howard, Stephen Root, Sam Elliott, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, and Richard Jenkins. It's too bad this wasn't a miniseries instead.

Generally solid if not watchable, "The Company You Keep" is, nevertheless, a letdown. A powerhouse roster of screen talent, fine craftsmanship, and urgent material — why is this such a near-miss? 

Grade: C +

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