Earthy cowboys, Angel of Death deliver Robert Altman's swan song in A Prairie Home Companion
I like things that old people like. Because of this, I spend a lot of time worrying about what will happen to a few of my favourite things (The New Yorker, the Grand Ole Opry) when their fan base, which is mostly comprised of people much older than I, are no longer whinnying with us.
Robert Altman – though his movies of late do not compare to tours de force from his heyday, such as Three Women, MASH, Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or even Short Cuts – is not someone I want to see gone from this world. From the tone of his latest, A Prairie Home Companion, such a passing is imminent, at least in the 81-year-old director’s own mind.
APHC is, in turn, a paean to another genre on life support: the live-staged radio show. The movie is named after a fictional variety show of the Grand Ole Opry ilk, hosted by real-life radio personality Garrison Keillor (who wrote the screenplay). Keillor’s drony Lake Wobegon oeuvre is not included in my list of classic things that should not pass into obscurity, and here he has given himself carte blanche to wring dry Altman’s light touch in a story that’s brittle as bone.
Keillor plays himself as the host of a radio show that is staging its last episode, and Altman’s film, in usual fashion, is concerned with the interwoven human stories that knot together to tell a tale. As usual, the director has collected a crack cast, though it could be said that the performances he draws from them are slightly more glib and less soulful than in times past. There’s a couple of singing sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (played by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, who have honed their limpy Midwestern accents to perfection). Then there’s Yolanda’s suicide-fixated teenage daughter, Lola, played by Lindsay Lohan, whose drawn, club-casualty visage seems more dried-out than those of actors thrice her age. Best of all is seamy cowboy-singing duo Lefty and Dusty (John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson), who pony up a couple of turkeys that steal the show, and appear to crack Harrelson and Reilly up in the process. And then there’s SNL’s Maya Rudolph in an earthy role as a very-pregnant stage manageress, and Tommy Lee Jones as the evil businessman who’s out to axe the whole production.
But down-homey wallpaper aside, the gist of APHC seems to come down in the form of the Angel of Death, played by Virginia Madsen, a gentle, radiant force in a white trench coat who takes the death of an old man into her cool white hands while proclaiming that "the death of an old man is not a tragedy."
But Mr. Altman, some of us beg to differ.
A Prairie Home Companion