A Prairie Home Companion (PG) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

His own long goodbye
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Robert Altman was one of the greats of American cinema, but not even his admirers would claim that consistency was his strong suit. In a career that covered the second half of the 20th century, his output was as erratic as it was eccentric and, even during his purple patch of the early 1970s - M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye - he still found time to turn out duds like Images and Brewster McCloud. When he made an acclaimed comeback in the early Nineties with The Player and Short Cuts, he followed them with his atrocious high-fashion squib, Prêt-à-Porter. No other director's body of work so blithely mingles pearls with cheap paste.

So it should come as no surprise that Altman's final film, A Prairie Home Companion, while far from a disgrace, is not really the swansong we might have wished from him. It is charming, it is gentle, and it is slightly annoying, if only because we can sense Altman's absolute indifference to urgency. One could cite the excuse of age (he was 81 when he died in November) but, in truth, he could have made this at any point in the last 30 years: he pleased himself, or no one. The ensemble format, the overlapping dialogue, the loose, improvisatory movement and the affectionate use of music are all characteristically Altman-esque. But Nashville it ain't, however much one would like it to be.

The movie is written by Garrison Keillor and is based upon his long-running radio programme A Prairie Home Companion, a variety show that mixes humorous skits and shaggy-dog stories with musical contributions spanning jazz, country, gospel, bluegrass and classical. Spoof advertisements for powdered-milk biscuits and duct tape namecheck imaginary sponsors, with Keillor himself acting as the MC and conductor of a relaxed, downhome symphony of Midwestern life. Altman falls into step with this unemphatic mood, eavesdropping on the resident company of players as they prepare for the broadcast, and prompting the characters to create their own little hubbub. Kevin Kline plays Guy Noir, a 1930s private eye with a line in Chandler-esque similes; John C Reilly and Woody Harrelson are guitar-strumming saddle-tramps who exchange daft jokes; Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are sisters in a country music act ("like The Judds, only not famous"); and Lindsay Lohan is Streep's sullen, poetry-writing daughter. What supposedly lends this particular evening's broadcast its piquancy is the knowledge that it will be the last Prairie Home Companion of all. Texan plutocrats have sold off the radio station, leaving only regret to fill the void. Troupers to the last, however, the cast are determined to go out on a high. "Every show's your last show - that's my philosophy" says Keillor; substitute "film" for "show" and it could also stand as Altman's philosophy. His maverick, anti-studio stance meant that he often had to scrimp just to get a film made, and it may be no exaggeration that he approached every project as though it were his last.

Well, this one really is his last, and, by design or not, a valedictory air hangs over the proceedings. It's not just a farewell to the radio stars, either; the shady lady (played, beatifically, by Virginia Madsen) drifting around backstage turns out to be an emissary of the Grim Reaper himself, yet seems so beguiled by the merriment that she stays for the show, too.

Mortality is the film's key, but playfulness is its mood, and I only wish I had been as enthused as the show's audience seemed to be. Alas, I respond to the twin prongs of folksiness and whimsicality as a bull might to a picador: irritation soon sets in. There is something too complacent about the backstage riffing, especially between Tomlin and Streep; the latter's blowzily philosophical songstress becomes so fey you wonder if she'll just float off. None of these characters can gain any imaginative purchase; nobody has been given enough to do, and the movie sleepwalks into inconsequence. Even when Tommy Lee Jones makes a late entrance as the corporate bigwig who's pulling the plug, we don't even feel that Capra-esque solidarity with the "little people" or for their cosily downbeat entertainment. Some things were just meant to stay on radio, and this is one of them.

We should admire Altman's insouciance, at any rate. "The death of an old man is not a tragedy", somebody says here, and if the tenor of this, his own last waltz, can't hide a sadness at parting it also suggests a man preparing to meet death with a smile on his face. Altman's loss isn't a tragedy, but it does render the movie landscape a good deal less interesting. Thank heaven that it featured him at all. I will cherish, among much else, the memory of Elliott Gould's proto-slacker Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, bemused at the gatekeeper's awful impressions of Barbara Stanwyck; of Keith Carradine's lovely performance of "I'm Easy" in Nashville; of Richard E Grant's manic pitching to Tim Robbins in The Player and of the deservedly famous tracking shot that opens it; and of a handful of stand-out performances - Maggie Smith, Emily Watson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jeremy Northam - in Gosford Park, his last great movie and the one I most look forward to watching again. In time to come (who knows?) the benign drift of A Prairie Home Companion may be looked upon as fondly.