A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION directed by Robert Altman, written by Garrison Keillor and Ken LaZebnik, with Keillor, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Lindsay Lohan and Tommy Lee Jones. 105 minutes. An Odeon release. Opens Friday (June 9). For venues and times, see Movies, page 123. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Robert Altman films used to be reliably nasty. Heroes died (McCabe And Mrs. Miller), murder went unpunished (The Player) and the powerless were as venal as the powerful they railed against (M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park... I could go on).
But as he hit 80, the misanthrope softened. His ballet film, The Company, was sensitive and spite-free. A Prairie Home Companion is actually genial.
Like a nudge in the ribs on a front-porch swing after home-baked pie and fresh coffee, this movie disorients with its folksy charm. The source material is Garrison Keillor's long-running public radio program, which is unheard in Canada but sounds like the Minnesota predecessor of Stuart McLean's Vinyl Café. There is a circle in hell.
Keillor MCs the movie, as host of the final Prairie Home Companion show before its theatre is bought and razed by a Texas businessman (Tommy Lee Jones). The troupe is determined to carry on as usual, though, so stories are told, songs sung and funny bones tickled till they bleed.
Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly carry on as two wilfully corny cowboy singers, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin keep the audience grinning as the last half of a four-sister act, and Kevin Kline revels in idiocy as house detective Guy Noir.
Keillor has an oddly diffident presence on screen, which thankfully leavens the homespun charm. But it's Altman's hand that makes the film worth watching. His all-hearing microphone and roving camera shooting surprisingly warm HD here give it a trademark observational feel. And with its story of one last show before the final curtain, it carries the comforting whiff of death.
For some audiences, A Prairie Home Companion will just be the new Lindsay Lohan movie made by that really old guy. She plays Streep's daughter, a suicidal singer-songwriter, and is completely out of her depth.
This movie ambles along amiably, but it's hardly light. Even when he's smiling, Altman shows his teeth.