5/2/2013 - An above-average episode of Law & Order is unnecessarily bloated into a two-hour movie in The Company You Keep, a very Robert Redfordy Robert Redford movie.
Perhaps you remember “White Rabbit,” a 1994 episode from the Lennie Briscoe/Jack McCoy era (this movie isn’t actually based on that but it has a lot, thematically, in common). In “White Rabbit,” money found in a storage facility leads back to a robbery from some 20 years earlier and a former radical who is living in hiding as a suburban mom. It was a good example of classic Law & Order — where a twisty path led from the money to mom’s trial, with thumbnail explanations of ’60s politics and just enough Lennie Briscoe-ness, all done neatly in an hour. The Company You Keep slows all that right down, adds some ponderousness and throws in some Shia LaBeouf. Advantage, Law & Order.
Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is a suburban mom who decides now is the time to turn herself in for crimes committed as a member of the Weather Underground in “the ‘60s” back in 1980. On the way, she is arrested by the FBI. A friend of hers from back then, Billy Cusimano (Stephen Root), organic vegetable and possibly weed grower, asks part-time country lawyer Jim Grant (Redford) to take her case. But Jim, having recently lost his wife, is now a single dad to a child young enough to be his great-granddaughter, and he begs off, saying he just doesn’t have the time.
Meanwhile, the New York Times parachutes into the small New York state town where all this is happening, scooping the reporter from the local paper. That reporter, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), decides to out-gun the nationals and do some digging of his own. He starts with a friend at the FBI (a sadly underused Anna Kendrick) and then finds Billy, who in passing gives him Jim’s name. Ben doesn’t have a very long conversation with Jim but it’s just enough to get his investigative juices flowing. He thinks at first that Jim may be advising other former radicals but then realizes that the man he thinks is Jim Grant might actually be more tangled up in the crimes of “the ‘60s” than Jim’s upper middle class life would suggest.
So I hate to be the grandkid at Thanksgiving who’s all eyerolls and “we get it, Grandpa, enough about the 1960s,” but this movie is the story-telling equivalent of pretending to be at Woodstock. It uses “the ‘60s” as a broad brush explanation for its characters and speechifies but doesn’t explain or examine or offer anything new. In particular, there is probably something new to be said about how we, with nearly 12 years of War on Terror under our belts, might think differently about the violence of the 1960s and 1970s. LaBeouf’s character would seem poised to do that — or, if he fails, then Kendrick or an FBI agent played by Terrence Howard. But instead of some kind of look at the history and maybe a comparison with the present, we get hoary nonsense about revolution and “the war, man” wrapped around a very soap-opera mystery where everybody seems too old to be the characters they’re playing.
I feel like the movie wanted to have it both ways — that Redford, Sarandon, Julie Christie and Nick Nolte are all ’60s era revolutionaries but that they are also vital young parents here nearly 50 years after the assassination of JFK. According to IMDB, Redford is 76, making him about 44 in 1980, the year of the bank robbery that sets this story in motion. (I found that on Wikipedia; the movie talked about “the ‘60s” but then had characters talking about things that happened “30 years ago,” which added to the sense that the movie never really played straight with time.)
The movie might have been able to fix this by resisting the urge (the urge that director Robert Redford probably had when it came to a character played by Robert Redford) to put Redford in the center. The movie has more liveliness to it and more ambiguity when it follows Ben Shepard, who is an old-school, look-through-files and call-people-on-the-phone reporter. He is also a little too slick and too careless. There, there’s a good flawed character to make your cop stand-in for what is basically a cold-case procedural. But instead the movie also gets all tangled up in making sure Redford still gets top billing in our attention, slowing everything down so we can look at his craggy face while he talks about the old days. I think we’re supposed to be paying attention to some acting in these scenes, but to me it felt more like mugging. C
Rated R for language. Directed by Robert Redford with a screenplay by Lem Dobbs (based on a novel by Neil Gordon), The Company You Keep is two hours and one minute long and is distributed by Sony Pictures.