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MOVIE REVIEW: Redford wears too many hats in weak 'The Company You Keep'

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Photo: Sony Classics Robert Redford stars in “The Company You Keep.”

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Photo: Sony Classics Robert Redford and Jackie Evancho stars in “The Company You Keep.”

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP

(R)

2 out of 4 stars

In the space of 33 years, Robert Redford has directed just nine films and only three of them have anything resembling staying power. He got real lucky when his first effort ("Ordinary People") won (some say dubiously) both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. Much like "People," the artistic success of "Quiz Show" and "A River Runs Through It" had less to do with his skills behind the camera and more with great screenplays and his spot-on casting decisions.

Opening with the same type of taut crackle and fiery sizzle found in two '70s political thrillers starring Redford ("Three Days of the Condor" and "All the President's Men"), "The Company You Keep" almost immediately settles into a typical Redford-helmed production; a deliberate, plodding and reflective mood piece.

Based on the unspectacular novel of the same name by Neil Gordon, "Company" suffers from many things, the worst being multiple-hat syndrome. As the film's producer, director and leading man, Redford has stretched his only so-so acting talents too far and as a result, he has sabotaged his own movie. The only thing he gets right (once again) is with the remainder of the casting. The 12 principal supporting players (three of them Oscar winners plus five other past nominees) have all played the lead many times in other films and the only one who hasn't -- the 13-year-old opera singer Jackie Evancho -- runs acting circles around Redford.

In all due fairness to Redford, the screenplay by Lem Dobbs is a scattershot mess no director could have salvaged. Wearing its misplaced '60s hippie idealistic heart on its sleeve, Dobbs' script haphazardly mixes fact with fiction and the touchy-feely, politically correct cocktail is impossible to swallow. Everyone involved -- the audience especially -- would have been far better served had Dobbs jettisoned Gordon's source material completely and started from scratch.

Lawyer Jim Grant (Redford) is a widower with a daughter (Evancho) living peaceably in upstate New York. Shortly after the arrest of a former member (Susan Sarandon) of the radical, far-left Weather Underground Organization, Albany beat reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) does a minimum of digging and discovers that Grant might have been involved in a bank robbery way back when that ended with the murder of a security guard.

The murder alluded to in the movie did actually take place in Michigan in 1970 but was not orchestrated by the WUO, but rather by another domestic terrorist organization. Even though the WUO carried out dozens of other terrorist acts (which its members called "protests"), pinning a crime on the nonfictional, largely inept group that it didn't commit is a huge narrative blunder. Given that none of the actual WUO members are depicted in the film, Dobbs should have just invented one from whole cloth with another name.

Realizing Shepard is on to something big, Grant turns over the legal custody of his daughter to his brother (Chris Cooper) and takes it on the lam. Over the next hour or so Grant covers great distances and reconnects with other former WUO principals (Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Elliot) in an effort to get to Mimi (Julie Christie), his ex-lover and the sole WUO conspirator who can save his skin.

Whether the Grant character is guilty is irrelevant to the story; his putting others in harm's way for the sake of self-preservation is more than a bit rude and arrogant, yet the filmmakers' paint him as a righteous innocent. Dobbs and Redford clearly want to have it both ways with these characters. Are the moral sins and serious felonies committed by people when they were young and reckless able to be overlooked just because they are now older, wiser, somewhat mellower, law-abiding and -- in at least one case -- riddled with appropriate guilt?

Even though groups like the WUO and other civil rights/anti-war figures (Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi in particular) shared nearly identical visions of ideal society, they went about implementing change in polar-opposite ways. Is violence and indiscriminant murder the right way to protest the same?

Romancing bad behavior in the movies ("Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid" -- another superb flick starring Redford) is nothing new and in the right hands with the right attitude can result in great films. If "Company" had applied the all-out revolutionary attitude of the era it attempts to convey, it too could have been great. Playing it so safe and going so slow killed both the message and the messenger. (Sony Classics)