Robert Redford’s on the run again in “The Company You Keep,” but—perhaps understandably in view of his advancing age—at a far slower pace than in “Three Days of the Condor” back in 1975. Or maybe it’s because he was also serving as director—an area in which his strength has always lain along more ruminative, melancholy lines—that the end result is so flaccid and low-powered. One misses Sydney Pollack’s touch with action scenes.
Redford stars as Jim Grant, a white-knight public interest lawyer in Albany, New York who’s also a doting single dad to his adorable young daughter (Jacqueline Evancho), a girl still grieving the loss of her mother, killed in a recent auto accident. Grant’s life is turned upside down, however, when Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a local housewife, is arrested by the FBI after living under an assumed name for thirty years. She was a member of the Weather Underground, a violent offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society, and had long been sought for her participation in a Michigan bank robbery during which a security guard was killed.
Grant declines a plea from an old friend and former client, an organic farmer named Billy (Stephen Root), to defend Solarz, but that doesn’t stop ambitious young newspaper reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) from looking into Grant’s past. And it turns out that he has none before 1970—because he’s actually Nick Sloan, an old comrade of Solarz’s who’s also wanted for the murder. When Shepard publishes that revelation, Grant manages to leave his daughter with his younger brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and go on the lam before intense FBI agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard) and his aide Diana (Anna Kendrick)—by chance an old college squeeze of Ben’s—can arrest him.
That sends Ben off on a search for Grant/Sloan, despite the misgivings of his stern editor Ray Fuller (Stanley Tucci). His investigations are juxtaposed with Jim/Nick’s travels, which—it’s revealed—have as their object finding his former Weatherman colleague (and lover) Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie). His peregrinations take him to some old comrades—Donal Fitzgerald (Nick Nolte), now a grizzled contractor, and Jed Lewis (Richard Jenkins), now a college professor—to track her down. Also involved in the search for answers are Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson), the retired Michigan police chief who handled the original robbery case; his lovely adopted daughter Rebecca (Brit Marling), who takes a shine to Ben; and Mac McLeod (Sam Elliott), a wealthy investor who shelters Mimi for a time. Everything winds up in a way that unfortunately cops out; when you come right down to it, in the final analysis the movie lacks the courage of its convictions as much as some erstwhile radicals—like the one played by Elliott—who have abandoned their principles over the years.
Still, Lem Dobbs’ script, adapted from Neil Gordon’s novel, lays all this out reasonably well, even it doesn’t do much to make any of the characters, even Grant/Sloan, three-dimensional. And Redford doesn’t really bring any more to the party as actor than as director: he’s still ruggedly handsome, though the face is much more weathered—no pun intended—than one remembers from the old days. But his stoic, largely impassive performance is merely bland. LaBeouf, by contrast, brings too much personality to young Shepard, making him more obnoxious than lovably ambitious. Luckily the script provides some strong moments for the stream of supporting characters, and Christie, Elliott, Gleeson, Marling, Tucci, Cooper and Root—and especially Sarandon, Nolte and Jenkins—take full advantage of them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t extend to Howard and Kendrick, who are totally wasted in thankless roles as the FBI pursuers. On the technical side, the film is merely okay. Adriano Goldman ‘s cinematography at least avoids slickness, but its washed-out look isn’t very attractive, and the overall physical production is no more than adequate.
“The Company You Keep” is well-intentioned and relatively clear—it’s certainly superior to Redford’s pedantic talkfest “Lions for Lambs”—and it’s enjoyable to watch the fine supporting cast go through their paces. But it lacks the visceral energy that would raise it from the level of a curiously humdrum political thriller. It was Sidney Lumet’s similarly-themed 1988 film that was called “Running on Empty,” but it’s Redford’s that superior picture’s title actually reflects.