"The Company," Robert Altman's gossamer, tension-free meditation on the ballet life, never quite recovers from a performance scene that arrives about 20 minutes in. Set on an outdoor stage as evening storm clouds gather, the dance is a pas de deux between Loretta "Ry" Ryan (Neve Campbell) and Domingo Rubio (a dancer more or less playing himself). As an eerie Kronos Quartet version of "My Funny Valentine" plays and the two pretty creatures entwine, bend, and fit into the spaces of each other, the wind picks up alarmingly. Pages of the score fly across the stage, the audience eyes the exits, and then the heavens open and rain pours down. The dancers continue,
trancelike, the drops seeming to bounce off the bubble created by their art. It's a thrilling scene, a duet between serenity and imminent disaster, and it gives you goose bumps. The rest of the movie, sad to say, stays outside that bubble. Campbell, a ballet dancer in childhood (we see her at age 6 or so in an old videotape Ry watches on TV) wrote the original "story" with "screenwriter" Barbara Turner, and I'm putting those words in quotes because I'm awfully hard pressed to imagine what the two did. As "The Company" follows the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago across the course of a half year, dipping into rehearsals, apartments, meeting rooms, and stages, we get to know a handful of characters. There's Ry -- just another dancer in the company -- her sous-chef boyfriend Josh (James Franco), Alberto (Malcolm McDowell), the imperious director of the troupe, and a receding chorus of dancers at the barre. The film is a lovely but anonymous tangle of limbs.
Actually, "The Company" may be the most extreme of Altman's "milieu" movies in which the director pulls his camera way back to capture the overheard conversations and comings and goings of a group. Even such misfires as "Health" (1980) and "Pret-a-Porter" (1994) indulged in story lines; "Company" offers up its dance performances like jewels on a missing string. Instead of plot we get vague situations -- such as Ry's courtship of Josh or the increasingly desperate hissy-fits of an aging prima donna (dancer Deborah Dawn) -- and more versions of "My Funny Valentine" than you ever knew existed. The result feels like a documentary that's missing the surprises of real life.
Still, balletomanes may want to nudge that rating up a star or two, and if the "purity" of Altman's approach has its (massive) pretensions, it can lull you into a happy stupor. Sometimes all it takes is a sequence of a male dancer rehearsing at night while across the city Ry draws a bath, a Bach cello sonata uniting them in intimacy. The performances are sinuous and clever -- except for the climactic "Blue Snake" number, a triumph of Bad Conceptual Art -- and the sense we get of the dancer's life is one of privileged poverty, with eight kids to a tiny flat and a total commitment to art.
"The Company" shows how unforgiving that art can be in a scene in which a dancer (Suzanne L. Prisco) snaps her Achilles' tendon during rehearsal, and everyone backs away from the sudden wreckage of a career. It's the only moment in which real pain intrudes on the movie's pastel little world. McDowell's rages are amusing but harmless, and Campbell floats through as if reliving the dreams of her childhood. To answer a question that many are asking, the actress is quite believable as a dancer. It's as a character that she's not really there.
("The Company": **1/2)
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.