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Thursday, June 22, 2006 06:34 am

All Altman

Ridiculing society’s foibles a joy to behold

I listened to Garrison Keillor’s radio show once, many years ago, and I found it dull. The miracle of Robert Altman’s new film, a fictional depiction of the program’s final broadcast, is that neither appreciation nor knowledge of the show is necessary to enjoy the film. What goes on backstage is often more intriguing. Altman’s satirical jabs in A Prairie Home Companion may be less scathing than they were in his earlier works, but they are still prominent. Much as he debunked Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (1973), Altman exposes the down-home charm of A Prairie Home Companion as a relic — a ’40s-style detective, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) and a visit from an angel of death are less-than-subtle reminders. Even Keillor, playing himself, seems completely disconnected from reality. Age hasn’t diminished Altman’s skill with actors, and the ensemble cast, featuring Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Lindsay Lohan, and Tommy Lee Jones, is one of the best he has assembled. 20th Century Fox recently released a boxed set of four Altman films from the 1970s. The set is anchored by M*A*S*H (1970), his irreverent war comedy, which has unfortunately been overshadowed by the sanitized and self-important television series it inspired. The new set affords viewers a perfect opportunity to relive a classic film that has lost none of its sardonic potency in 36 years. Once, when asked about his next project, Altman quipped that he was filming “a wedding,” and that’s exactly what he did. A Wedding (1978), boasting one of Altman’s grandest ensembles, is an examination of one of humanity’s most persistent and bombastic rituals. The coming-together of two wealthy families needs no plot, only Altman’s roving and probing camera. A Wedding isn’t quite in the same league as Nashville (1975) or Short Cuts (1993), but Altman’s ridicule of society’s foibles is always a joy to behold. I’ve never quite understood the seething hatred for Quintet (1979). Science fiction may not be Altman’s strong suit, but he nevertheless creates a beautifully bleak vision of the future through an unexplained board game. Perhaps some people need the security of answers. Paul Newman stars in Altman’s strangest film. A Perfect Couple (1979) is Altman’s final and least-known film of that decade. The ironic title refers to the mismatched pairing of a Greek-American businessman (Paul Dooley) and a rock singer (Marta Heflin). Couple never seems to jell, and it is certainly one of the master’s lesser films — but Altman’s misfires are far more interesting than most other director’s successes.
Coming Tuesday (June 27) on DVD: Madea’s Family Reunion, Failure to Launch, Find Me Guilty, and Ultraviolet.
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