A Prairie Home Companion
A Review by Misael Soto (8/10)
A Prairie Home Companion takes place almost entirely during the radio show's fictional last broadcast (it’s still going strong) in the Fitzgerald Theatre which is being torn down to build, of all the depressing things, a parking garage. The show is performed and broadcast across the country in front of a live audience, and because it takes place almost entirely on this one night on and off the stage we are forced immediately to slow down and accept a slower pace of storytelling which at first feels awkward but is very quickly settled into. This slower than usual pace is what I was referring to when I said the film’s a "laid-back" experience. It flows by you like time, never pausing to look back yet giving you enough time to reflect on what has just occurred so you know where you're going. This is very important in reference to the film’s themes and message; life is to be appreciated always and the past is to be remembered, and yet death is to be accepted and, at times, embraced as a new beginning.
As with his other films, A Prairie Home Companion is very much an actor's film. The entire cast, with its semi-improvisational acting, is such a blast to watch. Aware of their limited screen time, every actor cleverly plays each character as a caricature; exceedingly over the top. I couldn’t help but love every character in this film. Streep and Tomlin are comic magic every time they’re on screen together, at times doing the overlapping and hilarious shtick they memorably pulled off at this years Academy Awards. Kevin Kline and Maya Rudolph are just as engaging and fun while hysterically annoying the hell out of each other.
Much of the cast's dialogue overlaps and many of the singing numbers, and there are many of them, come across as unrehearsed and spontaneous which again adds to the film's unique charm. Altman under-uses every actor in the film and he does this on purpose. Every actor has his/her equal moment of spotlight; no one actor is the star of the film just as no one person is the star in real life. We learn about each character little by little in a very voyeuristic manner: from unfinished conversations and discussions that have already begun. Just as the camera leaves in the middle of conversations or singing numbers only it enters other scenes already in progress. Life flows endlessly and without preference from one of us to another.
This film is about an era long ago; a time when people genuinely cared about one another and assumed the best of even their worst enemies. It's also about accepting death and recognizing that the end is only the end until you realize it's actually the beginning. Altman is also very aware of the show's theatre's namesake Fitzgerald, named after the famous novelist, as anyone who has read The Great Gatsby or any number of his famous novels and/or short stories can attest to. With that said, Altman attempts some complex themes in this film. As I said before, I don't think he succeeds with all of them, including the addition of Virginia Madsen’s angelic and somewhat distracting character and subplot. Even still, it worked and I loved this film. If Altman was completely "successful," in the general Hollywood sense of the term, the film would be a completely different experience. It would be a more polished film and probably, if everything else remained the same, a boring film. Like friends and family members you can't help but love, regardless of their flaws, one can't help but enjoy this film for what it is: a celebration of life.
I'm embarrassed to admit it but this is my first Robert Altman film. I've been meaning to see many of his movies (Nashville, Gosford Park, Mash, etc.); I've just been preoccupied with Bergman, Antonioni, and others lately. Regardless, after seeing A Prairie Home Companion, one of the best films of the year thus far, I'm more than anxious to catch up on his earlier work.