A Prairie Home Companion
Robert Altman was a late starter, making his first film in his 40s, but once he got going there was no stopping the prolific and prodigious director. Yet it's clear from A Prairie Home Companion that he knew his time was over (he passed away at the age of 81 last November).
Altman was a tough old bird, a cynic who cast a beady eye over the excesses of late twentieth century America culture, but this is a relatively mellow, affectionate movie. Although it's set in the present day, it celebrates an anachronistic live radio vaudeville show, a throwback to the kind of thing Altman might have heard when he was growing up in the mid-West in the 1930s.
The show is for real, actually: Garrison Keillor is best known in Britain for his Lake Wobegon monologues, but in the US that is just one element in A Prairie Home Companion, the weekly radio programme Keillor has hosted off and on for more than 30 years now. Even when it started in the 1970s the Americana it celebrated had a decidedly nostalgic hue. Although Keillor's wry humour sometimes has a modern, ironic edge to it, there is still a very real audience for the traditional country/folk music which is interspersed with the chit-chat.
Keillor wrote the screenplay and also plays himself (or at least, one "GK"), but in time-honoured Altman fashion the movie devotes at least as much screen time to the supporting characters, not just the artistes, like singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly) and the Johnson sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), but to backstage figures like Kevin Kline's security guard Guy Noir, and Maya Rudolph's assistant director, Molly.
Then there's Virginia Madsen, who wanders around the old theatre apparently invisible to most, and whom we come to realize is the Angel of Death (in the credits she's listed as "Dangerous Woman"). She's here to collect a Country crooner, Chuck Ackers (Peckinpah veteran LQ Jones), but seems in no hurry to leave. You can't blame her, really; this is an entertaining company, and anyway, there may be more pickings before the night is out.
I'm doubtful that curious Lindsay Lohan fans are going to stick around for long enough to succumb to this movie's lazy charms and ambiguities. There's scarcely any plot (Tommy Lee Jones' corporate suit eventually shows up to close the theatre down), and la Lohan's big number is reserved for the end, when no one can think of anything else to do.
Still, I went in skeptical and was pleasantly surprised that it won me over. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, and their pleasure is infectious. Altman hovers over them like one of the benevolent angels in Wings of Desire. It's rare indeed to find such a vivacious film about death.
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