A Prairie Home Companion, Robert Altman’s final film, is a delight. It proves, as Altman’s career is testament to, that sometimes all you need to make a great film is a rugged and well-oiled ensemble.
Showcasing the director’s penchant for busy rooms and cluttered frames, he lets his characters loose to flood the film with personality. Every scene is alive with voices, stories and music. Given the subject matter, it goes without saying that characters will occasionally burst into song to further convey their feelings or illustrate a point with more panache, but it lends the film such a spring in its step; a foot-tapping sense of sheer enjoyment and optimism. The tone is constantly jovial, any conflicts are down to clashing personalities and temperaments, never giving way to outright hostility or villainy. On the one hand this is a nuts n’ bolts document of a radio variety show’s final performance, on the other a pure entertainment which knits a hardboiled noir detective into a ragtag blue collar roadshow which also includes a pair of hapless cowboys and a femme fatale who may or may not be the personification of death.
Altman relies on the DP Ed Lachman’s roaming camerawork to track his sprawling mirage of a cast. The actors are simply wound up and released to interact with their environment and one another. You have heavyweight thespians like Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and Tommy Lee Jones brushing shoulders with the more chaotic energies of Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. There are moments that feel beautifully written and constructed, others like happy accidents which rolled into the movie like tumbleweed on a warm breeze. Kline is bulldozing his way through a background with his physical comedy prowess one minute, Lindsay Lohan reading a poem about suicide the next. Altman catches every flourish, big and small and lets them be. He also expertly tracks all the strands and relationships meaning you never loose sight of an emotional through-line. There is an entire TV series’ worth of life and stories here jam-packed into 100 wondrous minutes of backstage bric-a-brac. I adored it.
PS. PTA was a stand-by director on this and you can certainly feel his shadow over Altman’s shoulder. The presence of John C. Reilly and Maya Rudolph being primary examples, Rudolph here pregnant with their first child together no less! Lovely.
Watched on DVD.