A Prairie Home Companion (PG.)
Directed by Robert Altman.
Starring Meryl Streep, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Lindsay Lohan. 105 mins
For his final film Robert Altman (who died November 2006, aged 81) set his wandering, restless camera loose on the last ever performance of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, a radio variety show featuring various country acts going out live from a theatre in St Paul, Minnesota. It’s a joyous farewell filled with a love of performance: everybody is a top turn in this show. As much as I enjoyed Harrelson and Reilly as a pair of singing cowboys, Streep is something of a revelation as the slightly dim half of a singing sisters act.
I loved it but I’d recommend it with caution. Its idiosyncrasies and relaxed indulgences will irritate many. It’s a rare film that can be condemned both for being pretentious and unadventurous.
My only previous knowledge of Keillor was a few pages of a hastily discarded copy of Lake Wobegon Days and Homer Simpson’s critique that he should “be more funny.” After seeing this film I’m still largely in the dark about what he’s all about but I’d say that he was just funny enough. A tall lumbering figure with a jowly, bulbous eyed frog face he sets an incongruous figure among the cowboys and country belles and you’re never exactly sure what his angle is in all this. The movie takes its cue from him: it’s comfortingly old fashioned and yet utterly mysterious.
Among the many strange elements are Kline as 40’s style private detective who wanders into the film from an Edward Hopper style diner and Virginia Madsen as an Angel of Death who wanders around the set. You have to wonder if Altman hadn’t received a visit from the other side suggesting if he had a final cinematic statement to make, now would be good time to do it. This Prairie Home is a perfect summation of his 50 years working in movie and TV. It has the overlapping sound, the large ensemble cast but mostly it reminded me of his 80’s work when he was a Hollywood outcast.
According to London theatre critics he’s not much good at staging a play but he was one of the best at filming them. When he couldn’t get money for anything else he filmed some incredible single set play adaptation and he’s doing something similar here, merging on stage and back stage into a single arena.
Altman was one of the great hit and hope directors, one who seemed content once started to just wait and see where the film making process took him. It’s just good fortune that after a lot of recent duffers he pulled out a gem for his last film. What a way to go – not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a big beaming smile.