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VENICE -- For one of the more sedate festivals on the circuit, there’s been a curious running theme of restless youth at Venice this year that can hardly be accidental. In Competition, Harmony Korine’s manic, fluorescent “Spring Breakers” – which I reviewed for Variety – observed (it’d be a stretch to say critiqued) the directionless nihilism of today’s college-going generation. Its opposite number, Olivier Assayas’s “Something in the Air” (reviewed here), mused on the ambitious social ideals of kids 40 years ago – but steered clear of suggesting that their activism was any more effective than 21st-century irony.
Indirectly triangulating with Korine and Assayas, only out of competition, is “The Company You Keep,” Robert Redford’s absorbing, undemanding and agreeably old-fashioned political thriller about where Vietnam-era radicals go when the flowers really are all gone. It’s more romantically liberal than both the aforementioned films, painting its 1970s rebels as more nobly consistent and influential than Assayas’s floaty political dilettantes and suggesting, in the doggedly principled form of Shia LaBeouf’s lone-wolf reporter and Brit Marling’s whip-smart law student, that there are youngsters more willing to continue their cause than Korine’s junked-up party posse.
Indeed, everyone is given something of a moral leg to stand on in Redford’s film, a rare example of a Hollywood thriller without any real bad guy. As washed-out, variously retired members of the Weather Underground, a terrorist network that carried out overly extreme acts of protest against the U.S. Government’s military policy in the late 1960s and 70s, Redford, Susan Sarandon and Julie Christie all project a kind of burning righteousness beneath a coat of autumnal regret. (Sarandon gets one of the pithier lines in Lem “The Limey” Dobbs’s script, adapted from Neil Gordon’s novel, when she tells a skeptical LaBeouf, “We made mistakes, but we were right.”)
We don’t really want to see these burnished fighters-in-exile go down – not least because they’re Redford, Sarandon and Christie, and so uniformly well-preserved it seems a shame to lock them away. Still, Dobbs hardly makes enemies of Terrence Howard and Anna Kendrick’s wearily officious FBI hounds seeking to round up the long-elusive fugitives after Sarandon’s ringleader decides, after 30 years, to turn herself in. It’s not hard to see why LaBeouf’s callow but growingly conscientious two-bit journo finds his own alliances see-sawing. He improbably sets the nationwide chase in motion after stumbling upon the true identity of Redford, who has been masquerading as an upstanding attorney and single dad in upstate New York, but the more people he talks to, the clearer it becomes that not all parties are equally complicit in the Underground’s volatile history.
That’s not to make the film’s moral compass sound any more courageously ambiguous than it needs to be; lacquered Hollywood production that it is, it cops out by ultimately making LaBeouf’s crusade a romantic one, as it somehow becomes clear that the future of spiky blonde love interest Marling is at stake in this otherwise graying firebrand fiesta. Still, she’s an easier crossfire victim to root for than Redford’s menacingly plucky 11 year-old daughter, harbored by Redford’s unaffiliated brother (Chris Cooper) when things heat up. (She’s played by Jacqueline Evancho, a young singer-turned-actress who looks ready to fill Chloe Grace Moretz’s shoes. With cement.)
This even-handedness does, however, come at the expense of some tension: with audiences given the option of investing in everyone, the final third rather runs out of gas as Redford and Dobbs try to bring every principal’s story to an amenable point of closure. “I grew up,” admits Redford’s character when asked about his loosened loyalty to the Underground cause; so do many characters in this diplomatically grown-up film.
Such concerns, however, are secondary to our sustained enjoyment of “The Company You Keep” as a kind of runway for several generations of plum stars and character talents, the rich ensemble rather ostentatiously showing off Redford’s continued pulling power even in the wake of far drearier films like “The Conspirator” and “Lions for Lambs.” (I realize a fashion-show metaphor may not be the most apt for a film as comforting and occasional threadbare as a flannel dressing gown.)
Indeed, it may be the most absurdly over-cast film in recent memory: those, like me, who haven’t bothered to peruse its specifics will be surprised to see one great face after another – Richard Jenkins here, Brendan Gleeson there – pop up in perfunctory roles that could be well-served by any jobbing actor. Susan Sarandon makes the most lasting of these fleeting impressions, virtually seducing LaBeouf with a defiant monologue about Underground values, though it’s a never-grizzlier Nick Nolte who makes the most jolting one: as a dissolute revolutionary who briefly comes to Redford’s aid, he doesn’t so much deliver his lines as cough them up.
Everyone’s on the best form they can muster without pulling a muscle; the same goes for Redford’s direction, sprightlier than the flatline of his last few works, but still a long way off the levels of care and craft he hit in the early 1990s with “A River Runs Through It” and “Quiz Show.” Actually, the only formal note I jotted down about this proficiently made film was a commendation to the costume designer for selecting LaBeouf’s natty blonde-tortoiseshell glasses, with a reminder to look up the brand and where I might purchase them. Perhaps my own ideals are a bit lacking.
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