The Company is an interesting film that was poorly received when it was released in 2003, mostly because it didn’t conform to certain expectations that film goers had about it. It was marketed as “a Robert Altman film,” and while Altman was the director, he was basically a hired gun and not as intimately involved in the entire process as he was with his other films. Therefore, audiences went to it expecting to see a Robert Altman film when The Company was, for all intents and purposes, actually a Neve Campbell film. Allow me to explain.

When Neve Campbell was nine years old, she entered residence at Canada’s prestigious National School of Ballet, training full time and performing in numerous productions. Dance was her first love and the focal point of her life until her late teens, when she transitioned into acting.

Throughout the first several years of her acting career (first gaining fame in the television series Party Of Five and continuing through the Scream franchise and other films) she dreamed of mounting a project that would be her homage to the world of the dance. A film that would illustrate both the artistry and intense athleticism involved in the form, and the complete emotional, physical, and spiritual commitment required by it.

After an abortive attempt to produce this project through a major studio, she found a home for it with an independent production company. She and collaborator Barbara Turner spent four years visiting Chicago and interviewing members of the city’s renowned Joffrey Ballet Company in order to glean enough narrative material for Turner to fashion a script. Campbell also took classes with the Joffrey during that period (between her acting gigs).

Once the project became a go, Campbell then began the laborious process of returning to world class dancing form after an absence of almost ten years. She trained over eight hours a day for four months on her own, then spent another month and a half training eight plus hours a day with the Joffrey itself to learn the dances required. To further complicate this already near impossible feat (imagine an NBA player trying to return after a nine year hiatus), she broke a rib just four days before she began the Joffrey training period and was in constant pain throughout the rest of the preparation for and shooting of the film.

Because the film had multiple characters and involved large amounts of naturalistic improvisation (it would have been impossible to get a troupe of dancers who weren’t actors to sufficiently master large amounts of dialogue), Campbell knew the film would be “Altmanesque” in many respects and would require a director with a similar toolkit to Altman’s. But much to her amazement, Turner (who was an old friend of his) and Campbell were able to get The Master himself to consent to direct the film.

This turned out to be a blessing and a curse for the project, because while they were blessed with Altman’s considerable genius, they were cursed with an audience who expected the biting satire and brilliant ensemble acting of Mash or Nashville or Short Cuts. And although The Company is many things, it is certainly not a biting satire or expose of the world of dance, and while it features several fine actors (including Malcolm McDowell and Neve herself) it isn’t the full on thespian onslaught that is Short Cuts, The Player, or any of your prototypical Altman films.

The plot of The Company is very simple, it highlights a year in the Joffrey Ballet Company, focusing on Campbell’s character, an ensemble dancer who has a chance to take on a featured role. The film follows the trials and tribulations of the dancers, with an emphasis on the challenges of being both a committed artist and world class athlete. Most of the cast is comprised of the “real” dancers of the Joffrey, and the movie contains several of the company’s actual dances in their entirety.

Many people who saw this film when it was released (myself included) were put off by the fact that it doesn’t contain much in terms of dramatic arc or character development (again expecting an Altman experience), but this is also true to the realities of being a dancer in a top tier ensemble. When you spend 8 1/2 hours a day in a grueling training regimen (one you’ve adhered to since your were nine or ten years old), there really isn’t a lot of time left over for anything else. To inject artificial drama or action into the film would have betrayed the truth of the material and rung very false.

It is also unfair to compare The Company to other Altman films in terms of acting because he was mostly working with a group of dancers, instead of several dozen of the best actors in the business. Even Neve Campbell isn’t really the star of the film, the Joffrey Ballet (really the Art Form Of The Dance) is the star of this picture. It was only after seeing this film on DVD years after its theatrical release (and reading more about the project) that I was able to appreciate these distinctions.

So if you enjoy the dance, particularly the Joffrey’s wonderful brand of it; The Company could be a very entertaining and satisfying rental for you. Just don’t go into it thinking “Robert Altman Film.”

You can learn much more about the making of The Company here and here.

And after you’ve watched the movie itself, check out the bonus feature on the DVD entitled “Play All Dance Sequences From The Film” and be blown away by the artistry of the Joffrey Ballet.