Robert Altman does something tricky in A Prairie Home Companion: He makes a movie about death that’s fully alive in the present. The big ensemble affair doesn’t seem like a departure, except that the 81-year-old director is now visibly preoccupied with the end of things.
The real, live-theatre radio show A Prairie Home Companion is the basis for Altman’s latest conflation of personalities. This time it’s the family atmosphere of collaborating on a production.
Set almost entirely within the wings and on the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater, there are murmurings that the program may be shut down by The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones). Much of the film is centered on the night’s live performances and its cast’s behind-the-scenes chemistry. Host Garrison Keillor (himself), comedic musical cowboys (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) and a sister duo (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep) provide the night’s entertainment. Lindsay Lohan plays an aspiring songstress whose work is focused on suicide—a laugh Altman has about the importance young artists place on misery.
Human mortality is juxtaposed with the death of art. It’s perhaps Altman’s last film, which in itself is the end of an era in movies. This is a dark undercurrent, but Altman masks it in the light-as-air playfulness of his interweaving structure. His endlessly hovering camera notices things without pronouncing them—it captures seemingly insignificant interactions and gives them thematic weight. This has always been a great strength, and A Prairie Home Companion has a distinctive virtuoso ease that could not have come from any other filmmaker. Its loyalty to light charm occasionally veers toward insignificance.
If this is to be taken as Robert Altman’s swan song, it’s missing the scope of his great epics. The Angel, played by Virginia Madsen, is given too much screen time for an under-realized idea. Otherwise, a third hour is required to really make the camaraderie and immediacy of a night of live performance feel like a grand ending. What we get is the first two-thirds of a terrific film—recent cinema’s cheeriest death song.
Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn represent middle America by showing normal people how dumb they look when their relationships fall apart. The Break-Up isn’t the appalling case of star vanity that Mr. And Mrs. Smith is. But its focus on the ugly side of its target audience’s lives preys on viewer gullibility. Aniston and Vaughn are millionaire movie stars. They haven’t been financially struggling, baseball-watching Americans in a long time—Hollywood demonizes what it doesn’t have to deal with.
Gary (Vaughn) and Brooke (Aniston) split up after Gary doesn’t feel obliged to help impress guests with a table display at the couple’s dinner party. The script assures that neither character ever act reasonably. The movie doesn’t reach for the big expected laughs of Vaughn’s recent pedigree. Its concern is being the ultimate film statement on break-ups, just like Meet the Parents is the ultimate movie on meeting parents, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin is the ultimate film on 40-year-old virgins. Zeroing in on people coping with romantic strife, the observation is sometimes accurate, but without humanity, none of it is legit. Were it less forgettable, it might be offensive.
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