A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is the story of one of America's most famous and best-loved public radio programmes. Broadcast out of Minnesota, then New York and then Minnesota, the programme was conceived by Garrison Keillor and combines country music acts performing in concert and adverts for fictional products. The show has all the ingredients for a classic Robert Altman movie, and the director essentially apes all his previous greats, such as GOSFORD PARK.
First, Altman finds a milieu in which a bunch of eccentric, fascinating characters can interact. So, where Gosford Park had an English country house, we now have the theatre where the final radio show is about to be recorded.
Second, Altman assembles a fantastic ensemble cast, largely on the strength of his reputation as a world-class film-maker. We have Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin - perhaps the finest actess and comedienne of their generation - as two country singers, plus Streep's on-screen daughter Lola, played by Lindsay Lohan, in what may be her break-out performance. I have always thought that Lohan had a great on-screen presence. She has the ability to make you want to spend time with her and, HERBIE: FULLY LOADED aside, has made some fantastic good quality comedies. (And yes, I AM being serious here.) We also have Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and the fantastic John C Reilly) as two cowboys who sing crude songs and tell fantastic off-colour jokes. My personal favourite, "Why do they call it PMS? Because Mad Cow was already taken." A special shout-out has to go Kevin Kline - the shambolic PD who provides the solid centre around which the ensemble cast turns. (How odd and sad to see him in this marvellous flick, and then the execrable new PINK PANTHER movie in the same week.) True to cliche, Kline gets hooked by an enigmatic blonde, in the form of Virginia Madsen.
Finally, Altman just follows these guys around. It's as simple as that. There are no big melodramatic moments, no epiphanies, but an authentic rendering of the little amusements, tensions and wonders of every-day life. With a cast this good, and a script this charming, you really don't need much else. The audience feels like it is part of the action thanks to the mobile camera-work of Edward Lachman, apparently using hand-held Hi Def cameras.
Is this a great film? Maybe. It is surely a sweet and funny film with some great performances and great lines. Some film-makers are shooting for worthier things, and a very small portion are succeeding. But you know what? I'll take a film-maker who can make me laugh over one that can educate me any day of the week.
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION premiered at Berlin last month, where it did not win the Golden Bear. It lost out to a great and worthy film about the aftermath of the Balkan War. Now, I am not saying that worthy films shouldn't win anything but sometimes you have to wonder why the "academy" does not praise comedies enough. Making someone laugh is, to be facetious, a serious business, and there is no lesser talent involved in playing it for laighs as in playing it straight. Anyways, PHC goes on release in the US in June. I'll add European release dates when I have them.