By extension the film itself is even more marvellous, though largely because Keillor’s weekly show doesn’t have the privilege of the kind of brilliant cast that a filmmaker like Altman can muster. What’s more, as with any Altman film, you know that every one of the cast are there by choice and not just for the paycheque. Altman has long been a master of the ensemble cast, and he has lost none of his touch. The performances are almost uniformly excellent, with only Lindsay Lohan letting down the side with her closing song. How she has signed a record deal is a mystery.
Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are particularly good as the Johnson sisters. Only a pair of seasoned performers like these two could do justice to the subtle dynamics that make the roles both believable and amusing. As they bicker, finish each others sentences, and belt out classic songs, you never doubt for a minute that they are the famous Singing Sisters. But the rest of the cast aren’t far behind, with Kevin Kline giving one of the most loopy and endearing performances of his career, and Harrelson and Reilly making a delightful turn as the singing cowboys.
Despite the stellar cast and endearing material, it’s Altman himself who really makes the film tick. With his signature style of improvised dialogue, roaming camerawork and long, unstructured takes, Altman doesn’t so much create a mood or look as capture it. His films are often maddeningly random and unfocussed, but all of them have an unmistakable authenticity. Even if you don’t understand a damn thing, it all seems tangible and real, and A Prairie Home Companion is no exception.
A Prairie Home Companion is not for everyone. Its languid rhythm and whimsical contrariness will irritate people in search of the escapism of a genre film. Some may pigeonhole it as floppy, sentimental nonsense, but look closer and you’ll see that it has touches that no other living filmmaker could match. Watching the film is a little like listening to a wise old man rambling on, apparently without purpose, about the old days. Unless you listen closely, you may miss the long streaks of brilliance in what he is saying.
- Alistair Fairweather
This vintage Robert Altman tale about a folksy radio show is as warm and comfortable as a well made old shoe, but also just as threadbare.
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