'The Company You Keep' never quite figures out what it wants to be

'Company,' directed by and starring Robert Redford, is equally preachy and melodramatic.

By , Film critic

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    Robert Redford maintains mystery as Jim Grant, a public interest lawyer, in 'The Company You Keep.'
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“The Company You Keep,” directed by and starring Robert Redford, is an odd movie for our times: both antiquated and seemingly in-the-moment. It’s about a group of radical antiwar protesters from the 1970s, many of them former members of the Weather Underground, and what life has done to them. It is also about what happens to those among them who emerge at long last from hiding (in some cases in plain sight).

The film’s focus is on a group responsible in the ’70s for a Michigan bank robbery in which a guard was killed. Its members were identified but, with one exception, never apprehended. Now one of its ringleaders, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), who had been posing for decades as a Vermont housewife, is arrested by the FBI just as she has decided to turn herself in.

Redford plays a public interest lawyer in Albany, N.Y., named Jim Grant, although we soon discover he is really Nick Sloan, one of the Michigan bank robbers. Or is he? Sharon’s arrest, and the ruthless inquiries of a local reporter, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), send Nick into hiding, but instead of fleeing the country he maneuvers behind the scenes to clear his name. It’s “The Fugitive” meets “Running on Empty” meets “Absence of Malice.”

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As if he didn’t have enough baggage, Nick, a recent widower, also has an 11-year-old daughter (Jackie Evancho), whom he deposits with his physician brother (Chris Cooper) in Manhattan as the FBI bears down. Nick wants to clear his name as much for her benefit as his own: He wants her to know he’s no murderer. His best hope lies in locating an ex-flame, Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie, too long absent from the screen), who apparently survives as a marijuana smuggler off the California coast and is the one person who can clear his name – although to do so she must be persuaded to give herself up.

Equal parts preachy and melodramatic, “The Company You Keep” never quite figures out what it wants to be. Is it drawing parallels between ’70s-era radicalism and modern terrorism or making sharp distinctions? Is it an indictment of cutthroat investigative journalism or a mash note? The film tries to have it every which way, and the balancing act comes across as a cop-out. Why don’t we hear these aged radicals reference today’s many political transgressions? (The women, curiously enough, are depicted as being far more fire-breathing than the men.) The movie strains to be “relevant” in a vacuum.

Redford and his screenwriter, Lem Dobbs, adapting the novel by Neil Gordon, may be seeking a reexamination of the student radicalism of the Vietnam era in light of modern terrorist-era politics. But in practical terms, what this most often comes down to is a series of vignettes involving superannuated Weathermen and Students for a Democratic Society types (additionally played by Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, and Richard Jenkins – it’s quite a cast) prattling on about the good-bad old days while the FBI dragnet, and that rapacious reporter, close in.

“I didn’t get tired; I grew up” is how Nick explains his maturation, but that doesn’t really tell us very much. In any case, Redford is miscast. Almost 76, he’s too old to be playing a former ’70s-era radical.

At least some of the other characters, most triumphantly Sharon, have an opportunity to articulate their ideals unhampered by a lot of cloak-and-dagger theatrics. Sarandon’s showpiece sequence, in which Sharon, grilled by the reporter while in FBI custody, stands up for her actions, is easily the film’s best. Hard-bitten, unregenerate, and yet almost wistful, Sharon is the person this movie, by sheer force of argument, should have been about.

In political terms, it also felt like another cop-out to me that Nick is an innocent. How much more interesting “The Company You Keep” might have been if he was fighting not for his name but for his soul. Grade: B- (Rated R for language.)

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