Well to say Robert Altman is back and in top form seems like a phrase rehashed every five years or so. After the out of touch The Company, Altman goes back a little ways into a territory he seems very familiar with. The subject is old time country music, its cast is large and familiar, and everyone does some singing. There is a random, spontaneous feel to the film that was horribly lost in the Company. On the other hand it isn't as meticulous or contrived as Gosford Park. This recalls the freer, more carefree Altman of Cookie's Fortune. Everything about this film seems familiar, and its so simple in its premise that the film is just a joy to watch. Its a film thats great simply because it doesn't take itself at all seriously, and not just in a comedic sense. It isn't trying to envoke the spirit of some bygone time, it isn't trying to be a representation of some historical landmark, its simply a movie, and a damn fine one at that.
First time screenwriter Garrison Keeler adapts the loose story of his own long running radio program of the same name. It is just as much his film as Altmans. He interpreted most of the music, and his emcee has the greatest amount of work to do in the script. He plays his role so perfectly that you just become convinced he's not even acting, and I really believe he isn't. This is a man who really knows all those dumb old commercial jingles, and has over a million corny jokes to fill any conversation. He also plays his role as if sometime year's ago he lost all sense of emotion. There is no inflection in his words and deeds, simply a professional radio man who doesn't want to make speeches, get emotional, or even laugh. More than the show itself, he's a relic of a long deceased era. Right along with him is the ironically named Guy Noir (Kevin Kline). He opens the film with narration from a roadside diner looking straigt out of a 1950's movie. We almost believe for a minute that this might be a story with noir tendencies, or at least set in that era, but as he crosses the street we see that we're sitting in the present day, and for some reason this show which should have died decades ago is still on the air, but of course for only one more night.
Meryl (I can do anything) Streep plays one half of the remaining Johnson sisters, which were a real life singing group of siblings. Like she tells her young daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) when mentioning the Carters "They're like us, only famous." The other half is the far less talented Rhonda (Lilly Tomlin) who got off the hook from singing in Altman's Nashville but is unfortunately not spared here. She's more of a hard nosed old broad here who seems like performing comes second to breathing. Whereas Yolanda is full of nothing but memories, and has a slightly harmless senility to her. She constantly tells stories and voices opinions on topics so often that her daughter has grown to memorize all of them and also come to detest them a bit. She realizes her mother is no longer the sharpest tool in the drawer, but the music is of course her life. Lindsay Lohan plays her role with a small degree of uncertaintiy. The groundwork is set for her to become the "star waiting to be born", but you're not sure if this film will go for that cliche, after all it is an Altman picture. Of course with Lohan being the only member of the cast with a current recording contract you don't have much doubt whether or not she'll get up on stage.
In a purely Altman touch, is a mysterious blonde woman (Virginia Madsen) wandering around in a white trenchcoat. For Guy, she's the classic lady in white, the mysterious enchantress who he of course thinks he's charming the pants off of. Kline who's usually in top form just doesn't seem well suited for this hapless would be detective, and he plays him at times like an inspector Clousseau making it rather irritating to watch. Madsen does her job well and has the benefit of not having any emotion to display, she simply has to be a figure. Much more interesting a character is LQ Jones who plays a rather horny old bastard Chuck Akers. Although far past his prime, we nevertheless see him running around backstage with a girl, and even lighting candles playing romantic music and waiting for her in his dressing room (in boxers no less). I can hardly picture anyone better for his role.
John C. Reily and Woody Harrelson are a pair of guitar playing cowboys who don't get a great deal of depth. You get the feeling though that although these two may bad mouth each other all the time in front of everyone else, they're the best friends they'll ever have. Harrelson's Dusty is a bit of a low brow artist though. He loves a good, bad joke, and you get a feeling he's also got it in for the youngins. His sleaze is kept purely for comical purposes, and their rendition of "Bad Jokes" received the best reaction from the audience I was with, which as always consisted of a bunch of old people.
The pace and delivery of this film link it directly to Altman's oevure. I can't say its another masterpiece, but it is certainly a hit, and all of Altman's retrospective boils down to hits and misses. I'll admit my expecations for this weren't particularly high after his last disappointment, but there's still some life in the old man. Prarie Home Companion will hopefully grow to be listed as one of those occasions where his style and pace found a perfect subject matter and the right chemistry.
Grade A -
btw I topped myself in the world of dorkiness today. I showed up blindly at my local multiplex wondering if anything was playing when I arrived. I saw that the Proposition was starting in 10 minutes so I bought a ticket. After the movie ended, I stepped out into the hallway, to find that Prarie Home Companion was starting in another 20 minutes. I went to the bathroom and went back down the hall to catch my second film of the day. But hey with movie prices the way they are these days, I'll rejoice at my 2 for 1 special. Even if seeing two movies by yourself in a theater makes you a loser.