Thursday, July 5, 2007

A Postcard from Middle America

By Lars Trodson

Near the end of Robert Altman’sA Prairie Home Companion” I did something I have never, ever done while watching a movie alone at home -- I applauded. It was the conclusion of Lindsay Lohan’s number, after she was pushed out on stage by this loving family of performers she’s found herself in. Lohan, who I know more as a publicity figure (and even so, a vague one) than an actress, really pulled the song off. She was just great. I guess the combination of rooting for her -- because I think the way the press treats these young people is cruel and having absolutely adored every frame of this movie -- made me feel something movies don’t often do any more, and that is just plain old joy.

This is a great comedy -- funny, poignant, not heavy handed, with a remarkably likable cast that seems to be having a great time knowing that the audience will, too.

I had put off seeing “A Prairie Home Companion.” I only listen to the radio program very sporadically. While I am almost continually amazed at its high quality, and it makes me laugh, I’m also not really into that old-timey folk music, and sometimes the film noir parodies get a little tiring. So a movie version of all that wasn’t really my thing.

I also knew this was the last -- not the latest, but the final -- film by Robert Altman. I grew up being annoyed by him (the final frames of “The Long Goodbye” still strike me as one of the most arrogant, off-putting gestures by any movie director ever), or mystified (“3 Women"), or enchanted (I may be one of the few people to like “Popeye”). But, then, over the years, after having seen as a young man “California Split” and one of the best television movies ever made, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” with Brad Davis as Capt. Queeg, my cold heart started to warm to this rebel.

I warmed to the infinite charms of “MASH” -- which remains one of my favorite movies to this day (“God Damn Army jeep,” says Bobby Troup). I once wrote in an obit for Altman about a little moment in that movie that I thought was a pretty good analogy for his filmmaking style. There’s the scene in which Henry Blake and some others are facing toward the camera, looking for the arrival of a helicopter. But then they suddenly hear the chopper coming in from the opposite direction and, surprised, they turn around to watch it land. It’s a tiny little moment, but it makes me laugh, and I wrote that it was an emblem of the Altman style: full of tiny detail, and always coming at you from an unexpected direction.

I don’t think “A Prairie Home Companion”, which came out last year, was a hit. It arrived in the year following Altman’s honorary Oscar, and there was no way that Martin Scorsese was not going to be nominated for Best Director and not win (for “The Departed”), so there was probably no point in nominating Altman anyway, even though this was his most sustained and nuanced piece of filmmaking in years.

This project suited his talents. He had directed for the stage -- and he had adapted many stage plays for film during his wilderness years in the 1980s. (“Come Back To the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” was one). And his fluid camera style helps make this last film not seem so stage-bound. It is, after all, essentially a filmed stage play, and we are treated to the small vignettes, the back-stage bickering (almost all of it good natured), and some of the sadness that is accompanied by the knowledge that the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion” is coming to an end.

At least in the movie, and this is its slight premise. We open in a diner and one of the patrons is a detective by the name of Guy Noir (played by Kevin Kline, and none of which is promising to me), and he’s spouting this goofball tough-guy dialogue (again, I thought, this might be tough going), and we learn that a small, live radio production that is put on every Saturday night at a local theater called “A Prairie Home Companion” is going to be shut down because the property has been bought and will be turned into a parking lot. The Axeman, the guy perpetrating this cultural crime, is played by Tommy Lee Jones -- just a real gem. (Catch the moment, ever so small, when he looks to the bust of F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

That’s the plot. Noir strolls back to the theater to see what he can learn about the Axeman and his plans, and in the meantime the show must go on. It is hosted by GK (Garrison Keillor), and he brings out his guests: the singing Johnson sisters (Meryl Streep, warm and loving as ever, as well as sly and bawdy; and Lily Tomlin, who hasn’t been this sharp and funny in years (she also looks slightly like Shirley MacLaine here), with Lohan as Streep’s daughter; and the old singing trail hands, Dusty and Lefty, played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. There is the stage manager, Tim Russell (who is a regular on the radio version), and L.Q. Jones -- from Sam Peckinpah’s old repertory company -- and others.

Altman must have attached microphones to everything -- this is his style -- because you can see that the notes a guy is playing on his guitar way in the background are synched up to the movement of his fingers. It’s lovely, technically adept filmmaking. And he catches the conversation for all of us to hear.

As the actors come and go on stage, The Dangerous Lady is lurking around backstage. Played by the luminous Virginia Madsen, she is an angel of both death and hope, and some people can see her and some can’t. She tells GK that the reason she died was because he was telling a funny story on the radio and she laughed so hard she lost control of the car. “Sorry about that,” he says in that deadpan Keillor way. “Really sorry.” It’s laugh out loud funny.

So is Kevin Kline -- reunited here with his old “Sophie’s Choice” co-star Streep. I run hot and cold with him -- sometimes I think his schtick is too obvious, but in this movie, I don’t know, he’s gliding through it with an ease and a charm that is really fun to watch. He’s off-beat -- there’s a moment when “The Dangerous Lady” walks out of the room and the ceiling light fades out. Kline’s reaction to that is just gorgeous. His talents as a physical comedian have rarely been so appealing. Also watch the scene in which he thinks he’s talking to Maya Rudolph on the telephone. There’s a caliber of physical and verbal comedic acting you just don’t see very much any more. And, plus, the guy doesn’t age!

Well, Robert Altman did age, but there’s nothing too bad about that. He managed to get himself into the movies, something he was clearly born to do, and now we have this vast Altman panorama behind us, a panorama we can stitch together and see his version of America, it’s history and its nightmares and sometimes, just he showed us in this last, elegiac film, its better self.

Last year was the year of “The Departed”, of course -- and that is a film I love. Really love that film, even though it is a mess, story-wise, and the accents aren’t to be believed. But the writing is magnificent and most of the performances are just dazzling. “A Prairie Home Companion” is the flip side to that America. Both are true enough, of course, but it seems fitting that at the end of his long life Altman left us with a postcard not from the edge, but one right from the middle of America, which is where he started his journey more than 80 years ago and where he so knowingly returned one last time. This is a beautiful, beautiful movie.

See the trailer for "A Prairie Home Companion" here:

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