Director Robert Altman checked out of this world last November at age 81, and he was working right up till the end. His last film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” is a cinematic spinoff of the popular show on American public radio, and while it’s not up there with Altman’s best — “Short Cuts” or “Nashville” — neither is it one of his occasional misfires, like “Popeye” or “Pret-a-Porter.”

The film starts beautifully, with a radio tower set against the twilight, as the soundtrack spins through the radio dial of Middle America — country and western, religious preachers, a baseball game — before landing on the somewhat tongue-in-cheek nostalgia of the “Prairie Home Companion,” hosted by Garrison Keillor. As the voiceover tells us, “it was a live radio variety show, the kind that died 50 years ago, but somebody forgot to tell them.”

Typically for Altman, the film features more name actors than you can shake a stick at. In the dressing rooms of the Fitzgerald Theater, singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) laconically trade tall tales while Yolanda’s daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) has heard it all before. Keillor makes his entrance (playing himself) in his boxers, telling an endless shaggy-dog story, as stage manager Molly (Maya Rudolph) frets.

A Prairie Home Companion
Director Robert Altman
Run Time 105 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens March 3, 2007
Director Emilio Estevez
Run Time 120 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Feb. 24, 2007

Meanwhile, the theater’s security man, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) — looking like he walked out of a ’40s detective movie — is tracking a mysterious woman in white (Virginia Madsen). All fear the arrival of a Texan financier (Tommy Lee Jones) who has bought the network and threatens to pull the plug. As in “Nashville” and “The Company,” Altman seeks to demystify what we see on stage, by showing us the backstage dramas and imbroglios.

The show is full of Keillor’s particular brand of folksy Americana, and while his whimsy has earned him a huge following, this critic could only muster a weak grin for most of it. Better results come from a singing cowboy duo played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly; their song “Bad Jokes” is full of wince-inducing humor. “What do you get when you mix holy water with castor oil?” asks Woody. “A religious movement.”

The specter of death hangs over the film, as the mystery woman turns out to be an angel, come to claim a soul or two. And the general feeling of an era coming to an end, as the show’s cast begin to realize this will be their last show, could not have been far from Altman’s own mind. Some performers cry, others get angry, but Keillor remains stoic. “Every show’s your last show, that’s my philosophy,” he says. One imagines Altman agreed with him.

Evoking the spirit of Altman is Emilio Estevez’ “Bobby,” which looks at the day in 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy, the idealistic young senator from New York and presidential hopeful, was gunned down in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. Estevez — perhaps best known for his role in the cult-classic “Repo Man” — draws heavily on Altman’s “Short Cuts,” and more recent imitators like “Crash” or “21 Grams.” He employs a number of separate stories, all connected by one fateful moment, to give an overview of one moment in time — the end of ’60s idealism.

Estevez also uses a vast ensemble cast, with some 24 major roles. There’s liberal hotel manager Paul Ebbers (William H. Macy), who’s feuding with the restaurant manager Timmonds (Christian Slater), because the latter has refused his mostly Latino staff time off to go vote in the primaries. Ebber’s wife Miriam (Sharon Stone), works in the salon, where she cuts hair and manicures for alcoholic lounge singer Virginia (Demi Moore) and bride-to-be Diane (Lindsay Lohan, again), who’s marrying a draft-age boy (Elijah Wood) to keep him from being shipped to Vietnam.

The hotel is swarming with Kennedy staffers; while Dwayne (Nick Cannon) worries about potential voter fraud in minority neighborhoods, younger campaign workers score drugs from hippie dealer Fisher (Ashton Kutcher, who seems to think he’s in “Austin Powers”).

Are you still with me? I haven’t gotten yet to retired doorman Anthony Hopkins shooting the breeze with Harry Belafonte, switchboard operator Heather Graham having an affair with her boss, or a couple played by Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt who . . . actually, I’m not sure what they were doing here.

As you can see, it sure feels like Estevez — son of Martin Sheen — has a bigger rolodex than he can fit in one film. At three hours, like “Short Cuts,” this may have worked, but as is, all the characters and storylines feel perfunctory and under-developed. Estevez also reveals no great talent for dialogue with his script, which is heavy with cliche and characters who seem more like viewpoints than real people.

And yet, certain moments break through and really move you: Heather Graham, dressing silently, unable to face her lover, the look on her face saying it all; Demi Moore staring down Sharon Stone and saying, in a loaded line, “we’re all whores, all of us. Just some of us get paid.”

But the last reel of the film, where the tragic and chaotic aftermath of the R.F.K. assassination plays out on screen silently, as we hear the words of one of Kennedy’s most impassioned speeches play on top, is simply astounding. To hear this man speak so eloquently, so forcefully, about the violence plaguing American society, as his blood runs across the kitchen floor, is almost unbearable.

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