Dante never wrote about it, but there is such as thing as Movie Purgatory (or Cinema Purgatorio, if you will).
In Cinema Purgatorio, your fellow patrons are always checking their cellphones as the movie plays. They talk during the picture without ever shouting anything funny. The popcorn is stale, the soda flat, the floor disturbingly sticky.
And for the crime of demanding we take “The Company You Keep” seriously without really doing it himself, Robert Redford should do a little time there.
Based on Neil Gordon’s well-sourced and gripping 2006 novel about former members of the Weather Underground, the legendary radical left-wing terrorist organization that captured imaginations in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the screenplay by Lem Dobbs is neither. Despite a dynamite-on-paper cast (Stanley Tucci! Terrence Howard! Brendan Gleeson! Julie Christie!), “Company” falls apart around that most Hollywood of Dante’s sins: vanity.
On a calm New York day, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) looks out the kitchen window of a nice, upper-middle-class home, nods meaningfully to her husband, then gets in her car and drives off. She stops for gas and is surrounded by the FBI. Turns out she is a former Weatherman and has been in hiding for years.
Jim Grant (76-year old Redford) a recently widowed attorney with an 11-year old daughter (wait, what?) is asked to take the case. He declines and starts to worry.
Meanwhile, young Albany reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf, perfectly cast as a really annoying fellow) smells a big story in the Solarz case and starts sniffing around Grant and his past, including his relationship with Mimi Lurie (72-year old Christie, who looks great but should know better), another Weatherman gone underground.
“Company” is an infuriating, oddly disingenuous movie that didn’t have to be. There is nothing wrong with changing a novel to make it more cinematic, but again and again, Redford’s directorial vision flies in the face of logic, history and credible math.
Redford is simply too old to have been a Weatherman, the oldest of whom were born in the middle of World War II, and most afterward. Assuming the movie takes place in 2013 (and we might as well, as we aren’t told otherwise and iPhones are everywhere), it is 40 years, not 30, as Redford’s character keeps saying, since the Weathermen were truly active.
The movie posits that the crime that Solarz participated in took place in 1980; it is obviously very loosely based on the 1981 robbery of a Brink’s armored truck that represented the organization’s last, desperate flail, far from the group’s public peak and well after the original group had factionalized.
And, much younger wife or not, it beggars belief that the Sundance Senior would have an 11-year old daughter (who is 17 in the book, which takes place in 2006), especially given how careful he has been in his other areas of his life.
There is no reason a younger actor couldn’t have played the part. There is no reason the move and the crime, already fiction, couldn’t have been set earlier.
These sound like small quibbles. But they add up, and what’s more, they detract from the emotional work Redford is trying to do. He wants our investment in these characters, their struggles and their worldview without earning it. Moreover, he does it within a historical framework whose timeline can’t be futzed with without losing crucial verisimilitude.
The historical facts surrounding the Weather Underground are fascinating in and of themselves; the mythology and counter-mythology that has built up in the intervening decades is ripe fodder.
There is a terrific movie to be made about the myths versus the reality of the activist 1970s, about the melancholia of aging without the revolution taking place, about Boomer activists in their twilight years, about that strange period for the Left between Woodstock and Reagan, where idealism met reality met the conservative movement.
“The Company You Keep” is not it. It’s a big thing done in mediocre fashion, with a mystifying contempt for the audience’s intelligence and faith. It is itself cinematic purgatory.
Rating: R for language. Running time: 2 hours, 5 mins. Theaters: AMC Barton Creek, Arbor, Cinemark Galleria, Metropolitan, Tinseltown Pflugerville, Violet Crown.