Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion

Directed by: Robert Altman

Written by: Garrison Keillor

Starring: Kevin Kline, Garrison Keillor, Jon C. Reilly, Lindsey Lohan, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin

Rating: 5/5

"She had a Mount Rushmore t-shirt on, and those guys never looked so good. Especially Jefferson and Lincoln. Kind of bloated but happy."

For a man who remained a consistently prolific filmmaker since the 1960s it is very fitting that the last film in his hit and miss career should be such a wonderful piece of cinema. Robert Altman’s recent death has spotlighted his immense talent and reminded audiences of such gems as Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts. While the film industry will no doubt be saddened by his death, the man certainly left a very fitting swan song. A Prairie Home Companion is a film based on the real-life radio show which ran on American airwaves for over 30 years. The country music variety show was conceived by American legend Garrison Keillor, who wrote the script and stars in the film. The story is set around the final performance of the show and introduces a typically Atman-esque array of characters with whom we become familiar through subtle storytelling throughout the proceedings.

The exceptional thing about this film is not merely the fascinating stories, not the wonderful music and not even the phenomenal performances: it’s about the swift anecdotal movement of the dialogue. The director’s skill at defining nothing and moseying though a backstage area of old friends and families who share a bond of years of working together but show little actual schmaltzy love for each other is nothing less than profound. It is hard to imagine that these characters are played by actors, no matter how familiar their faces are. The acting is so smooth and naturalistic that it is difficult to decide who stands out. Such is the nature of a perfect ensemble cast!

The sheer oddness of some elements of the plot is completely unexpected and perhaps some may argue that it is superfluous, but the inclusion of Virginia Madsen’s angel and Kevin Kline’s private-eye-turned-security-guard, Guy Noir, add beautiful levels of eccentricity, wildness and spirituality to the film. This is the core of why the film worked for me. The characters are shown as simple country folk and while they are never slighted, they are shown as a race all of their own. The general acceptance of the angel and of Noir’s sensational character shows a sweet naivety and a sense of welcoming for all kinds of people.

The film flows along quickly and easily and is a pleasure that I feel will warrant revisiting a number of times on its DVD release. While its unconventional storytelling style may not be for everyone, I believe A Prairie Home Companion is a heart-warming, compelling, simple film for anyone with an interest in truly human characters. It is also a masterclass in character acting, with fine turns from movie brat Lindsay Lohan, and Oscar winners Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep. Also worth mentioning is Lily Tomlin who manages to steal the show from right under Streep's nose despite being what could essentially be called her sidekick. The acting and singing are fantastic all round and even small contributions from Tommy Lee Jones and Virginia Madsen manage to impress.

With its gorgeous production design, gloriously colourful costuming and easy-going mix of comedy and drama, A Prairie Home Companion is at least an enjoyable visual feast for two hours and at best, the crowning glory of Altman’s already glittering career.

Charlene Lydon

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