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When Good People Do Bad Things

Chris, Standley Lake Library

People of a certain age cannot help but love Robert Redford.  Like many others, I first encountered him in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), alongside the equally entrancing Paul Newman.  Ever the impresario, Redford segued from leading man to director to founder of the Sundance Institute, which holds an annual film festival that has grown into something of a prestige event for emerging and established filmmakers.

Every once in a while, Redford still takes on an acting role, and this past weekend, I was eager to see him star in The Company You Keep (2012), based on the novel by Neil Gordon.  For me, the film’s title is telling, because Redford is only a small part of the film’s appeal.  The cast consists of a veritable who’s-who of accomplished actors, including Brendan Gleeson, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Terrence Howard, Nick Nolte and Chris Cooper.  With all of that world-class talent, the movie can’t possibly suck, I thought to myself.

The first ninety minutes are promising.  Redford stars as Jim Grant, an Albany lawyer whose true identity as a fugitive member of the Weather Underground—and if you’re old enough to know Redford, you don’t need a history lesson on the Weathermen—is exposed by a newspaper reporter played by Shia LeBeouf, who looks less like a journalist and more like he should be worrying about who to take to junior prom.  For those who object to my characterization of young Shia, I have but one word: Transformers.

Once uncovered, Redford’s character goes on the lam.  Having spent thirty years as a fugitive, he stays one step ahead of the feds, who seem forever on the verge of nabbing their man, only to be outsmarted by wily Sundance.  Everything proceeds swimmingly until the screenwriters get lost on their way to the ending.  It’s almost like they made aesthetic choices that they couldn’t retract, and decided that rather than backtracking, they’d just press on to the end.  You know, like the Donner Party

I don’t want to give too much away, but the ending of The Company You Keep requires some suspension of disbelief.  I’m hard-pressed to think that other members of the cast didn’t have the same reservations about the script as I did, but maybe that’s the Power of Bob.  You’ve certainly arrived when actors of note will drop whatever they’re doing to act in a mediocre film with you.  Just ask Woody Allen.

The saddest part of this film is that it’s easy to see how it might have been good.  A plot twist here, a meaningful supporting role there.  But this one’s in the can, and as much as we might like to, there’s no taking it back.  If indeed we’re judged by the company we keep, then a great cast was diminished by devoting their considerable talents to something that didn’t measure up.  When one person makes a bad choice, it’s poor judgment; but when a whole group does it, you suspect there’s something in the water.
In Hollywood, the best way to wash off the stink of a bad film is to make a great one.  And while I don’t doubt that Redford still has the capacity to do great work, I hope he has the good sense to invite back the cast of The Company You Keep, so that those who shared in his mistakes can also bask in his glory.  But maybe I should be more magnanimous: after all, nobody’s perfect.  But when choosing scripts, I think it’s good to ask yourself: what would Sundance do? 

The Company You Keep. (2012). Starring Robert Redford, Shia LeBeouf, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, et al.  Rated R.


*Photo of Robert Redford by Jemal Countess, cc2012.