A Prairie Home Companion
Rated PG-13, 105 min. Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Garrison Keillor, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Lindsay Lohan, Kevin Kline, Maya Rudolph, Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, L.Q. Jones, Marylouise Burke, Sue Scott, Tom Keith.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 9, 2006
It's been a very long time since any Robert Altman film has been as enjoyable as A Prairie Home Companion. Sure, Altman turned in a couple of nice movies with Cookie's Fortune and Gosford Park, but those films have scripts so solid they could have been directed by just about any competent director and probably delivered the same agreeable results. Altman's recent forays into more abstract ensemble subjects – like Prêt-à-Porter, Kansas City, and Dr. T and the Women – have all been creative failures that never located their disparate subjects with any precision and displayed no evident love for their characters. What's absent in A Prairie Home Companion is exactly what makes this Altman film so terrific. Gone is the director's dyspeptic world view and deep disdain for his characters. Whether this shift is due to the director's personal evolution or the serendipitous pairing of Altman with fellow Midwesterner Garrison Keillor remains for future films to tell. Nevertheless, the combination of Keillor's invented radio community of A Prairie Home Companion, which he's perfected over the years through the show's public radio broadcasts and now with this film script (whose story he concocted with Ken LaZebnik), and Altman's roving camera eye, which in pausing to focus on an individual homes in on the gestalt, makes for a delightful movie experience. We had a glimpse of this film's workings during the introduction of Altman by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin at this year's Academy Awards ceremony before receiving his Lifetime Achievement award. Their daffy routine in which they stepped all over each other's words was a prelude to their singing sister act in the film as Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson – stalwarts among the radio show's many troupers. The film is fashioned in the vein of a backstage musical. But for a brief opening scene and epilogue set in the neon-lit diner across the street from the theatre in St. Paul, the action of A Prairie Home Companion all takes place during the last-ever presentation of the show’s live radio performance. This kind of live radio fell out of favor decades ago, although this cornpone ensemble seems to be the last to receive the news. The station has been sold to a rich, heartless Texan (Tommy Lee Jones), and while the performers bemoan the end of the show and an era, their call to observe a moment of silence is met with refusal by G.K. (the host of the show, as Garrison Keillor is called here, and the shambling center of the action), who insists that a moment of silence on radio is simply dead air. Ed Lachman’s camera glides in and out of the dressing rooms and onstage, pausing here and there to focus on a character or bit of conversation. The characters are deliciously rich: There are the aforementioned Johnson girls, including Yolanda’s daughter Lola (Lohan, who holds her own quite capably), the lovable kings of bad jokes Dusty (Harrelson) and Lefty (O’Reilly); the cowboy balladeer Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones); the suave but bumbling detective Guy Noir (Kline), and the mysterious woman in a white trenchcoat (Madsen) who stalks the theatre. The film is rather skimpy in the plot department, however the fullness of the characters more than compensates for this omission. For A Prairie Home Companion is not really about anything that happens or is about to happen among these characters or because of the broadcast’s demise. Rather, it’s a testament to living in the moment and cherishing the joy of creation. At the age of 81, Altman may show signs of mellowing, but he again emerges as a master filmmaker.