Saturday, December 09, 2006

Big House on the Prairie

The recently-deceased Robert Altman signed off with his adaptation of Garrison Keillor's long-running radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, which is a fitting tribute to the great (though sometimes mediocre) old cinéaste. In a pleasant reversal of Hollywood reality, the film tells the distressing end of a real-life radio show that continues to run unimpeded, where the antiquated formula of recording in front of a life-studio audience every Saturday night is threatened by the buy-out of the station by a Christian-fundamentalist-run Texan conglomerate. The film details the last night, overseen by a hamming security guard played by a patently superfluous Kevin Kline, where the regular performers, Keillor, playing his eminently admirable self, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and others, combine to bring the house down in classic Hollywood fashion.

Things neither ever get too clichéd nor get too serious thanks to Altman's touch, which is particularly noticeable in the early backstage scenes, which remind one of his high points of the early seventies such as McCabe & Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye. From thereon the film entertains in fits and spurts; occasionally the action wanes but by and large the film is likeable enough to recommend viewing. Keillor is better known in Europe for his incredibly funny novels and it is a delightful novelty to see him playing himself onscreen (as do many of the show's technicians). There are also wonderful turns from Streep, as one of Keillor's fictional spurned loves (Streep has made an effortless transition to comedy in recent years that only confirms how much her acting genius was for so long hidden beneath leading roles in middle-brow studio features), and John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson as the ribald cowboy duo, who have a show-stopping number entitled "Bad Jokes, I Love 'em All". There is nothing remarkable about the film, and it is minor Altman at best, but given the way his career went in his last ten years that is good enough. Keillor, for his part has fun dispatching the God-fearing Texan by way of the angel Asphodel; he has, since before the election of Dubya in 2000, been a standard-bearer for progressive Americans (many of them, as the film shows, Country & Western devotees). The US is not as easily dismissable as many simple-minded Europeans think. May Bob Altman rest in peace and may God preserve Garrison Keillor.