For Criterion Consideration: Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion

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Over any given span of time, the popularity of a given director can go through ebbs and flows. Take director Robert Altman for example. Always considered one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, his name has now, with recent releases of films like Nashville on Criterion dual format, been as talked about as any of the youngsters taking to the festival circuit or veteran names finding a home in megaplexes around the globe. Since his death in 2006, the director’s career has been feted over and over again by those looking at his pictures for the first time or those looking at them for the tenth, and yet, one film seems to constantly be overlooked.

Entitled A Prairie Home Companion, the film is the final film Altman made before his death, and it’s one of his best. A big screen adaptation of sorts of the beloved NPR radio series of the same name, the film is everything one would home to get out of a Robert Altman picture, ranging from its gigantic cast chock full of A-listers down to the oddly ever present sense of death that presides over the picture.

Amongst the aforementioned heavy-hitter-filled cast is Kevin Kline, our guide of sorts through this world found seemingly entirely in the back stage area of a legendary theater, and the stage where each of these characters comes to life. Kline plays a man named Guy Noir, a private detective/doorman of sorts for this troupe of performers led by one Garrison Keillor, the show’s host. A much loved show, the show has seen better days, and, as the main dramatic hook, we discover that tonight’s proceedings are the final time the show will ever be aired. With the show on its final legs, a mysterious trenchcoat wearing woman who may or may not be an angel of some sort and even a young teen pre-disposed to write some rather bleak poetry, A Prairie Home Companion is a breathless comedy that is also a death-ridden picture that is as fitting a final film as director Altman could have ever hoped to have as his final credit.

At first glance, the film’s cast is absolutely incomparable. Kline is absolutely great here as Noir, a perfectly dry detective whose prosaic style of speaking is perfectly dry, fitting Kline’s delivery like a glove. Opposite him is Keillor, the real life host of the radio show and the one who informs us about the goings on over at Lake Wobegon. Joining Keillor on stage are the country music singing sister duo Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lilly Tomlin respectively) and even a pair of bad joke telling ranch hands played perfectly by the pair of Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly.  Toss in a never better Lindsay Lohan as Yolanda’s daughter Lola and even welcome faces like Maya Rudolph, and you have an ensemble cast that is more than fitting for the final film from one of the greatest ensemble cast directors to ever get behind a camera.

The entire cast gives superb performances. Lohan is of particular note, who not only fits this character perfectly, but her performance is toned perfectly. Slightly a caricature of a wannabe teen artist, there is a humor behind her performance that is sadly missing from much of her recent work, and in the film’s final moments you realize just how much of a magnetic presence she truly can be. Harrelson and Reilly are superb opposite one another, and their “Bad Jokes” sequence is one of the best and most inviting musical sequences to grace the big screen in quite some time. Streep is understated for once and it proves to be a superbly melancholic performance, taking on the role of a woman disconnected from her daughter and dealing with a relationship that may be over, but itself still sitting heavy on her mind.

Now, however great the cast truly is (and trust me, the performances here are bewilderingly great), Altman is the film’s biggest star. Aesthetically, the film is beautifully thoughtful, never allowing itself to draw away from a performance too soon, or linger on it for too long. With gorgeous photography, the film is at its very core a back room drama with a focus on character instead of directorial flourishes. With director Paul Thomas Anderson hired as a “backup” director in case Altman weren’t healthy enough to work on any given day, this is a telling example of just the type of influence Altman had over Anderson’s earlier work. Very much a typical aesthetic work from Altman, this is a gorgeous and stayed character study.

However, if there is one thing that this film seems bizarrely interested in, it’s death. Be it actual death in characters (presumably) like the one played by Virginia Madsen and Lohan’s poetry-writing Lola, or conceptually in the form of the actual radio show, the film’s predisposition to death sets a cloud of melancholy over every passing second of the film. An idea that weighed heavy on Altman’s mind throughout his career, the film has been described by critics following its release as some sort of “wake,” itself a rather fitting descriptor for this picture. Melancholy and yet overflowing with a lively sense of humor, the film is neither bleak nor slight, instead seeing death as something itself inevitable, making this a vital comedy from one of film’s greatest directors. Charming and placid, the film is easily one of the most rewarding and inviting films that has seemingly been forgotten since its debut back in 2006.

And with the film being truly overlooked, comes the fact that it has yet to be seen on Blu-ray. Criterion should, in their great wisdom, help change that. There is a solid DVD release of the film, but with a new transfer, the film itself could look better than it ever has. That said DVD release has a good commentary with Altman which would be a welcome port over, and knowing that Criterion has sourced things from director Paul Thomas Anderson, a conversation with him would be a welcome addition. Toss in a big retrospective of Altman’s career from the legendary collection of actors his work touched and you could have a release that would be more than fitting of this superb final film from the brilliant Robert Altman.