Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep,” a sympathetic look at the wrinkled radicals of the 1960s, expands this weekend into Memphis and some other markets less than two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings.
The timing is inauspicious. A tougher film might have seemed provocatively relevant in the tragic context of current events, but this movie seems invested with a muted nostalgia for the good old days when bomb-tossing students looked like “Americans,” had easy-to-pronounce names, and might grow up to be as clean cut as Redford and Susan Sarandon: the revolutionaries next door, not the jihadists from overseas. Do you miss them yet?
Well, yeah, sort of. “Our government was murdering millions,” says the former Weather Underground anti-Vietnam War militant played by Sarandon, an accessory to murder thanks to a 1960s bank robbery gone wrong. “We made mistakes, but we were right.” True, in some respects, even if foreign 21st-century terrorists might use similar arguments.
Unfortunately, Redford the director, who also plays the hero of the story, another ex-radical, is unwilling to go there. “I grew up,” asserts lawyer Jim Grant (Redford), explaining his decision to adopt a new identity, get married, have a kid, and pursue a purposeful career. Admirable, perhaps, but kind of dull; we’d rather spend time with his unrepentant ex-girlfriend (Julie Christie), who’s proud to be “running good honest weed” off the coast of California rather than doing something legal but bad like looting old people’s pension funds. She says she’ll turn herself in for her crimes the day politicians and corporations do.
Adapted by Lem Dobbs from a novel by Neil Gordon, Redford’s ninth film as a director since 1980 (the year the actor debuted behind the camera with “Ordinary People,” which won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director) might be described as a political cross-country chase film, although the pace is not particularly frantic. (Redford is 76, after all.)
The chase begins after Grant’s decades-old cover is blown by a smart-aleck young Albany “beat reporter” (Shia LaBeouf), investigating the local arrest of a longtime Weather Underground fugitive (Sarandon). LaBeouf’s boss is played by Stanley Tucci; testimony to the film’s misunderstanding of modern newsroom economics arrives when the stressed boss confesses to his prima donna staffer: “This isn’t all about you. I just laid off my sports department.”
Running from the authorities and hoping to clear his name in the bank robbery, Grant makes surprise visits to such estranged former radical pals as a college professor played by Richard Jenkins, whose lecture includes a shout-out to Karl Marx, and a lumberman played by Nick Nolte, an actor who increasingly resembles some sort of Pleistocene epoch badger, although a giant badger probably would have a less gravelly voice.
Terrence Howard, meanwhile, is given the thankless role of the FBI agent in charge; he stares at monitors, makes references to “intel,” and periodically barks: “C’mon, people!” Also onscreen is indie darling Brit Marling (“Another Earth”), looking characteristically exotic and believably like the daughter of two of Hollywood’s most beautiful 1960s screen idols.
At one point, the college professor muses that the days of meaningful student protests may be gone. “Now, we’re just a story told to children,” he says, ruefully and wistfully. Replies Jim: “Well, I’m glad someone’s still telling it.” Indeed, but if you want the children to listen, you’ll need to make the telling more compelling than it is here.
“The Company You Keep” is playing exclusively at the Malco Ridgeway Four.