Thursday, January 18, 2007

17th January 2007 - A Prairie Home Companion

I was crammed into the smallest of screens in a pretentious cinema for this film, the last of Robert Altman’s (director of MASH) before his death at the end of 2006. It’s about the last recording of a live-radio country and western variety show. You know the ones. Well, you don’t – unless you’re from that weird bit in America where they still listen to that sort of crap. Sorry, did that insult any of my two readers? I doubt it.

Anyway, it’s this weirdly archaic show where a variety of country and western singers belt out songs, and alas it’s being shut down. The film takes place entirely on the last performance. And, erm, that’s about it really. Oh, there’s a bit of fantasy stuff too. I’m not really sure why. Or if there’s any point to the story at all, really. But there’s lots of singing. But I don’t find singing that interesting. Oh dear.

My struggle with that last paragraph reflects my struggle with the film. See, there is a lot in there that’s good. Altman’s direction is smooth, with lots of play on reflections. The dialogue is played brilliantly, with characters overlapping each other to create a natural flow throughout the film. There are some amusing songs (especially the ‘bad-jokes’ song, and the sung advertisements). Plus the cast are undeniably great – Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin play singing sisters, with Lindsay Lohan making first steps in an adult film as Streep’s daughter. The ever watchable John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson are a pair of rude cowboys. Kevin Kline is the madcap producer. And Tommy Lee Jones pops up as the evil guy trying to bring them all down. He could also be the devil, but that’s me trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

But though all the components are good, it feels like they’ve been cobbled together into some weird, incoherent hybrid monster. There’s random bursts of slapstick comedy, some dips into character backgrounds that never really get off the ground, a lot of singing that sometimes could be a parody, but sometimes is just a general song. Kevin Kline is a comical, noir-esque character, but everyone else plays it pretty straight. And there’s a frickin’ angel in it. What the hell is going on?

The only sense I got from it was a chilling nod at the theme of death. Though it’s been advertised as a jolly sing-song, everything in it whiffed of demise. The end of the radio show, the destruction of the theatre, the literal demise of one cast member, the frickin’ angel. Play it against Altman’s unfortunate passing away, and it becomes a sort of goodbye. But it isn’t a goodbye, because Altman was very much alive when he shot it. So it’s either a conscious reference, a subconscious one, or just an unlucky coincidence. Without the coincidence, though, the film feels a little directionless, and felt a lot longer than its 105 minutes. For me, there were too many songs, but then I am a miserable bastard, remember.

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to rate this. On the one hand there are lots of likeable elements. On the other hand, the lack of purpose and (for me) unnecessary constant singing meant I didn’t wholly enjoy it. But on the other hand (this incoherent hybrid monster has three hands) I did spend a long time pondering what it could have meant, and if a film can make me ponder then I commend it. So overall it scrapes a CF0, but only because I’m being generous. I’m nice like that.

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