First off, a confession: I am not a big fan of radio programs. I don't know why
because as a kid, I used to love to fall asleep with a transistor radio playing, listening
to whatever broadcasts were available. So, except for catching a few minutes of
a televised version of Garrison Keillor's A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION radio show
on PBS, I was unfamiliar with the show. Nor have I read any of Keillor's books about
Lake Wobegon. My friend Craig sends me links to National Public Radio broadcasts
if he thinks the subject matter would be of interest and I usually listen dutifully. although
for some reason, I find listening to a disembodied voice over a radio or computer
strange and unsettling. I realize I am in a minority here and that there are millions of
fans who weekly tune into Keillor's program. If they get out to a movie theater to see
the film version, directed by Robert Altman, I suspect they will enjoy it.
I recently saw Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers interviewing Robert Altman and
Garrison Keillor about this film on PBS' CHARLIE ROSE. It was quite interesting and
intriguing especially as Travers appeared to want to get the pair to discuss what he
termed the "valedictory" aspects of the movie. After all, Altman is 81 years old and
arguably in the twilight of his career. So it was amusing to hear Keillor describe the
film as a "light comedy," while Altman baldly stated that it was "a film about death."
A light comedy about death? Is that even possible? In this case, no.
Frankly, I'm at a loss as to how to really describe the film. It's not exactly a concert
movie, although it does recreate a broadcast of the radio show -- in point of fact, it is
the final broadcast. The premise of the movie is that the Fitzgerald Theater in Minneapolis
has been sold to Evangelical Christians from Texas who intend to tear the building down.
The news sweeps through the cast and backstage personnel, although Keillor (playing
a version of himself) refuses to make a big deal about it.
The film opens with narration by one of the real radio show's characters, Guy Noir
(played by Kevin Kline as a sort of American Clouseau). But the film doesn't play out
from his point of view, so having him intone the opening lines as if he were going to
be a focal point doesn't make sense. But then, for me, that was a lot of the problems in
the screenplay credited to Keillor from a story on which he collaborated with Ken LaZebnik.
Some aspects of the film work beautifully while others sort of flounder. The most
perplexing and dubious creation in this story is the character called "Dangerous Woman"
and embodied onscreen by Virginia Madsen. She is something of an angel with
particular ties to the show, yet she is not seen by everyone. That was one of the things
that confused me. In my opinion, the role was ill-conceived and not completely integrated
into the film's story, although she does play a pivotal role in the denouement. The same
could be said for Maya Rudolph's pregnant stage manager; her character has plot
functions, but she really isn't incorporated in the overall film.
The standouts are two sets of veterans whose pairing have resulted in gold. Woody
Harrelson and John C. Reilly portray cowboy singers Dusty and Lefty who like to
perform slightly suggestive humorous songs that rely mostly on bad puns. The other
duo is Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as the remaining performers in a family act
("like the Carter family, only less famous," as one offers). Streep and Tomlin chew the
scenery and leave poor Lindsey Lohan (cast as Streep's morose daughter) in the dust.
Even when Lohan is supposed to have her big moment, it proves something of a letdown;
instead of commanding the screen, she barely registers.
The film version of A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION contains some wonderful
moments but added together they don't coalesce into something special. This isn't
Altman at his best (e.g., NASHVILLE, THE PLAYER, GOSFORD PARK) nor is it
Altman at his worst (QUINTET, O.C. AND STIGGS). Still, middling Altman is far
superior to a lot of the dreck playing in movie theaters. Fans of Keillor and his
show will enjoy this version of A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for risque humor
Running time: 105 mins.
Viewed at the Broadway Screening Room
|A Prairie Home Companion
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.