A Prairie Home Companion
Review by Jack Foley
THERE’S added poignancy surrounding the belated release of A Prairie Home Companion given that it marks the final film of Robert Altman’s sparkling career.
The film contains many of the director’s trademarks – a star-strewn cast and interweaving storylines – and remains as enthralling as always. But it sadly falls some way short of Altman’s finest work (MASH, The Player, Gosford Park, etc, etc).
What’s more, elements of the story feel like the director had already begun to confront his own mortality.
The film follows the fortunes of the cast of one of America’s most celebrated radio shows, A Prairie Home Companion, as they perform for the last time in front of a live studio audience following the decision by the theatre’s manager (Tommy Lee Jones) to pull the plug.
Included in the line-up is regular host Garrison Keillor (virtually playing himself), the singing Johnson sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), and cowboy comics Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C Reilly), while watching from the sidelines are a security guard (Kevin Kline) and a mysterious angel/ghost (Virginia Madsen).
For the most part, A Prairie Home Companion succeeds in providing a fitting reminder of Altman’s immeasurable talents.
The way he manages a big cast, for example, is exemplary as everyone gets the chance to shine, and the juggling of themes is still an example to most.
But that maverick sensibility that was prevelant throughout hits such as MASH and The Player is much less evident here, replaced instead by a far keener sense of nostalgia.
For sure, there’s potshots at establisment values (as personified by Jones’s theatre boss) but there’s also a poignant sense of the inevitable and that all good things must come to an end.
It’s during such moments that the film really feels like a swansong and when Altman fans, in particular, will find some of the insights and reflections given by its older characters very moving indeed.
Others, however, may label such musings as pretentious and feel that they disrupt the film’s flow.
Certainly, the film is at its best when keeping things light, coming alive during the musical interludes delivered by Streep and Tomlin and the gleeful camaraderie between Harrelson and Reilly.
Kline, too, is hilarious, displaying a keen sense of comic timing that was sadly lacking from his performance in The Pink Panther.
But Lindsay Lohan feels a little out of her depth as Streep’s daughter and the sub-plot involving Madsen’s mysterious angel of death is unnecessary. There are moments when the film feels a little self-indulgent.
The overall result finds Altman departing quietly rather than with a bang – although fans shouldn’t begrudge making the journey to say farewell.
Running time: 105mins