Tommy Lee Jones
The closing shot of the late Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion sees a group of old retired friends sitting together in a retro diner, watched over by a smiling angel.
It's a fitting end to a film depicting the swan-song of traditional Midwestern types, but is made the more haunting by the passing of its gifted and idiosyncratic creator, who died earlier this year. All his hallmarks are here: a large ensemble cast, long shots with complex choreography, and moments of pathos mixed freely with surprising moments of humour and absurdity. This is Altman's eulogy to himself, a celebration of touching humanity put together by a director at the height of his craft.
The title is the name of a radio variety programme that entertains over four million people weekly in the US. In the parallel universe of the film (written by and starring the radio show's own host and scriptwriter, Garrison Keillor, in a Kaufman-style twist) the show is a small-beer affair about to face the corporate axe.
As its last performance begins, the cast are visited by the official responsible for the show's demise (a stony-faced Tommy Lee Jones) and a beautiful nameless woman. Playing out in real-time from the moment the audience enter the theatre to the moment the curtain drops, the camera eavesdrops on the reminiscences of the artists and the backstage crew. Relationships are revealed and friendships reviewed. There is a death, and a joke about penguins.
In concept A Prairie Home Companion is like a scaled-down version of Altman's previous Gosford Park, with servant's quarters replaced by dressing rooms and the lush upstairs now a theatre stage. The emphasis is still on character, but the characters are not unstylised. The out-of-kilter slapstick detective, played in the earlier film by Stephen Fry, is replaced here by a Philip Marlowe-style security guard, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline). The shooting is technically impressive: the camera glides through doorways, along corridors, from character to character, and once even rises up through the floor to catch the curtain as it lifts. The viewer moves like a ghost around a living, breathing world.
The script is dry and compassionate, and well-realised by an excellent cast. Meryl Streep, the US equivalent of Judi Dench, continues her dominance of all roles all-American, and imbues her old-fashioned country singer with real warmth and fragility. Co-stars Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly enjoy themselves immensely as a duo of dirty-mouthed singing cowboys, and Kevin Kline adds the silly stuff. But the most remarkable figure here is Keillor, playing himself with staunch unsentimentality. Holding his own amongst so many celebrated actors, he emerges as both likeable and witty.
The presence of several American icons - the diner, the corporations, and F. Scott Fitzgerald - indicates some level of allegory in the proceedings, but there is no political manifesto and Altman seems keen to enjoy the small-town rather than to damn the big-city. The middle of the film - the radio show itself - is given over mostly to country songs. As in O Brother Where Art Thou, America's soul is synonymous with its music.
This is a decidedly gentle film, without a murder to drive it or much drama to sustain us along the way, and plenty of audiences may find it hard to care about an idealised group of Minnesota old-timers. However, at a time when most movies feel their interest is only equal to their macabre shock value, it may come as a relief to find a movie so rich in heart and soul. The singing throughout is excellent and the dialogue is witty. The five-minute improvisation by the show's real-life sound-effects man is worth the entry price alone.