Prairie Home Companion, A (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A Prairie Home Companion is proof that age has not caused director Robert Altman to turn toward conventional, crowd-pleasing forms of cinema. Despite a folksy, low-key appeal, this movie is likely to primarily interest fans of Garrison Keillor's popular radio program. Unfortunately, since the principal audience is comprised of individuals who rarely visit movie theaters, A Prairie Home Companion may struggle at the box office. This combination of storytelling, singing, and corny comedy is sometimes a little too slow and long-winded for its own good, but at least the aftertaste isn't bitter.

Once upon a time, Altman was numbered among America's greatest directors. The last dozen years have not been kind to him, however. In the wake of The Player and Short Cuts, his most recent two great endeavors, Altman has been erratic, with horrible misfires like Dr. T and the Women and The Company counterbalancing decent-but-unspectacular efforts (Cookie's Fortune, Gosford Park). Aging and not in the best of health, Altman recognizes that each new film could be his last. And, while A Prairie Home Companion wouldn't be a bad way to go out (merely unmemorable), it's nowhere close to the kind of story Altman could weave when he was in peak form.

Garrison Keillor's radio program, performed live before a studio audience, has been on the air since 1974, and has been syndicated via NPR since 1980. The formula is simple: Keillor tells stories and jokes, enacts skits and fake commercials, and interrupts all of this with plenty of music. It's the kind of laid-back, homey experience one might expect from the man from Lake Wobegon. Altman's movie, based on a screenplay by Keillor, uses many elements of the radio show, but is a fictionalized version of it. Three of Keillor's skit characters - ex-PI doorman Guy Noir, and the cowboy singing duo of Dusty and Lefty - come to life on screen. The rest of the men and women populating the movie are a combination of real and fictional individuals. At the center of it all is Keillor, telling stories and singing songs - just like he does on the radio.

Altman's fondness for improvisation is both a blessing and a curse. It works well with Keillor's style, but there are times when it goes on for too long. Conversations last past their expiration date and there's a tendency for the viewer's attention to wander. My sense is that this movie would be best appreciated being watched at home during a PBS beg-a-thon in front of a roaring fire. A theater seems almost too big a venue for it. And there exists about a degree of separation between A Prairie Home Companion and the satires of Christopher Guest. Here, the things Guest would gently poke fun at, Altman presents seriously.

There is humor in the film, although it at times seems misplaced. The best comedy is the stuff that comes across in Keillor's monologues, fake sponsor copy (the one for "duct tape" is priceless), and the songs of Lefty (John C. Relly) and Dusty (Woody Harrelson). On the other hand, Kevin Kline's Guy Noir is so slapstick-happy and over-the-top that he seems like he belongs in another movie (perhaps A Fish Called Wanda). It's a little bizarre.

The premise is simple enough: look behind the scenes at the goings-on before, during, and after the final radio broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. Backstage dramas include a death, the arrival of the corporate axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) to pull the plug officially, and the presence of an angel (Virginia Madsen). Keillor handles these difficulties like a pro, and the broadcast goes off without a hitch.

The ensemble cast is impressive, although everyone operates in Keillor's shadow. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin play singing sisters who have been with the show since its beginning. Lindsay Lohan takes her first indie role by essaying Streep's daughter. She doesn't have much to do - she spends most of the movie writing in a composition book before singing an unexpected version of "Frankie and Johnny" - but the title will look good on her resume, giving her cinematic "street cred," so to speak. Neither Madsen nor Jones has much screen time, but they relished the opportunity to work with Altman.

A Prairie Home Companion takes a while to reach its stride, but it gets there eventually. One interesting touch employed by Altman is that, even though the movie is set in contemporary times (witness the car in which the Axeman arrives and the pay telephone), it seems stuck in a 1960s (or earlier) time warp. Everything is old fashioned, from the songs to the stories. Only the jokes of Dusty and Lefty have a vestige of modernism invested in them. "Corny" and "quaint" are two words that apply to this movie. And I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

Prairie Home Companion, A (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2006-06-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1