Film Reviews

A Prairie Home Companion Robert Altman

Rating - 7/10

Is it possible to write a review of a Robert Altman film without saying the phrase "stellar cast"? No is the answer, but I will try to only say it this one time... Stellar cast, wandering camera, eccentric characters, casual dialogue. All the idiosyncrasies of a Robert Altman film are certainly apparent in A Prairie Home Companion, Altman's final film by default. Default of course meaning death preventing him from making another.

Based heavily on Garrison Keillor's own weekly spoof old-time radio show of the same name, the movie also uses the genuine backdrop of the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. The whole movie, excluding a beautiful sun-setting opening sequence, is set within the confines of the theatre. Keillor also appears as himself, having written the script. Why not. Amazingly, he gives a great deadpan performance in his first foray into film, especially as he is competing for screen time with Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, Lindsay Lohan, Woody Harrelson, John C.Reilly and so on.

And so we are treated to the final night of the long-running country music variety show in its entirety, as Altman's camera weaves almost transcendentally through conversations in dressing rooms that lead right up onto the stage, full of sentiment and aimless storytelling of days gone by from Keillor, the bickering Johnson sisters (Streep and Tomlin), the remains of the all-singing Johnson family band, and Lefty and Dusty (Harrelson and Reilly), a pair of singing cowboys, while Kevin Kline ghosts around the set as the cumbersome private detective that occasionally appears in the show's pulp fiction hour, but not tonight. Virginia Madsen literally ghosts around the set as an angel, come to take one of the elderly cast members away. Fantastical, yes, but just roll with it.

As always, Altman gives his actors creative licence and it pays off. That said, it seems the pressure is off most of the cast - the majority of them having either given up on the "oscar winning performance", or having already attained that status. The singing parts are believable from Harrelson, Reilly, Streep and Tomlin, (let's face it, Lily Tomlin is no Emmylou Harris but we'll let her off because I've always found her strangely attractive and she has a sexy baritone that actually compliments Streep's more well-trained voice) but there is a sense of self-satisfaction at times, as though they're knowingly in on the joke.

Littered with pockets of humour, especially during the sponsor announcements in-between songs, "The Johnson Sisters ladies and gentlemen, brought to you by powdered milk biscuits", A Mighty Wind would be an obvious but unfair comparison to the movie, think more along the lines of Altman's earlier work Nashville, or even David Lynch's Straight Story to get the true feeling of down-home Americana not so subtly on display here. Like an old Norman Rockwell painting, it tends to the nostalgic view of the Midwesterner. But a nostalgia for what? A radio show that never sincerely existed in the first place, and that conflict never allows the story to develop too far. Altman purists will enjoy, the rest of us will be mildly entertained and a little heartwarmed. Not his greatest, but at 81 I hope I'm still able to eat solids let alone direct a Hollywood movie.