Director - Robert
Garrison Keillor, based on a story by Mr. Keillor and
Director of photography
- Ed Lachman.
- Dina Goldman.
- David Levy,
Tony Judge, Joshua Astrachan, Wren Arthur and Mr. Altman.
Released by Picturehouse.
105 minutes. Rated
PG-13 for some sexual humor and
STARRING: Woody Harrelson (Dusty), Tommy Lee
Jones (Axeman), Garrison Keillor (G. K.), Kevin Kline (Guy Noir),
Lindsay Lohan (Lola Johnson), Virginia Madsen (Dangerous Woman), John C.
Reilly (Lefty), Maya Rudolph (Molly), Meryl Streep (Yolanda Johnson) and
Lily Tomlin (Rhonda Johnson).
I wonder if anyone will consider Garrison Keillor for a Best Supporting
Actor Oscar next year. With his charm, humor, and heart, he somehow
manages to steal A Prairie Home Companion from his entire
cast of superstars.
And thank goodness he does. No movie star should be
allowed to steal any of Keillor's glory
for the outstanding work he has done over the years, cultivating his
traveling, musical live-radio
program into a national treasure. A Prairie
Home Companion has been a dependably entertaining, heartwarming, and
amusing radio show since … well, it feels like it's been around since
Benjamin Franklin, but the show made its debut in 1974. It has
consistently, resiliently celebrated American music, history, and
community in a heartening and inspiring way.
While Keillor’s quirky characters and spirited ensemble have embraced
comedy from the sharply satirical to the unabashedly lowbrow
— they even
have an annual “bad jokes” show —
the heart of the program beats most
intensely when Keillor reads notes contributed by fans who are sending
well-wishes to their loved ones in the listening audience
across the nation.
It's hard to believe nobody managed to commemorate this program on the
big screen before, but we can be thankful that Robert Altman (Gosford
Park, The Player) and his assistant — Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia)
— have brought such spontaneity and grace to the project, translating
Keillor's wit and whimsy to the screen almost intact.
I say "almost" because it's rather disorienting to see so many big
Hollywood stars in the show. Altman has gathered a cast of spectacular
talents — Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly,
Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, and Tommy Lee Jones are all in the cast.
And an up-and-comer you may have heard about … Lindsay Lohan. They're
all entertaining and some, especially Streep, contribute truly memorable
But seeing so many familiar big-screen faces in the film takes something
away from the home-cooked quality of Keillor's brand of Americana. I
found myself wishing the big names were special musical guests like
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, or Alison Krauss, who bring down the
house when they visit the radio show and who deserve a big screen
And it's a shame that the film doesn’t give us
more opportunity to see Keillor doing what he does on the show
— telling great stories. Actors like
the late Spaulding Gray (Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box)
demonstrated that a good storyteller can make a
compelling cinematic subject. I have no doubt Keillor possesses
that kind of charm -- he strolls through the hustle
and bustle of the movie, and we follow his every move.
But if you aren't familiar with his talents as a
storyteller, this isn't a very good introduction. Altman's film is too
busy snooping around, investigating the interweaving subplots, to let
Keillor command center stage for one of his marvelous monologues.
I wanted him to take us to
that wonderful small town of his imagination: Lake Wobegone. If
there’s a sequel, maybe he will.
Nevertheless, this is Keillor's show, and it's a
The film pretends that A Prairie Home Companion is a long-running
stage show based in the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul. And, borrowing
a boilerplate plotline from old Walt Disney movies,
Keillor's script sets up a straw-man villain
— a heartless businessman (Tommy Lee Jones)
who has bought the theater and plans to demolish it. He shows up to
stare coldly down on the people whose lives he's about to overturn.
Meanwhile, the audience applauds
appreciatively, and Keillor keeps a cool head
as the show strikes a precarious balancing act
between inspired spontaneity and total chaos. He’s followed around by an
extremely pregnant Maya Rudolph, who tries to keep him from forgetting
his stage cues, and by Kevin Kline, playing the part of Guy Noir. (In
the radio show, Guy Noir is a character from a recurring skit. In the
film, he’s a somber, thoughtful security man and a fumbling oaf
— one part Bogart, one part Clouseau
— who reminds me of the existential
detectives in David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees).
Elsewhere in the hubbub, a singing-sisters duo, Yolanda and Wanda
Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), reminisce with wild abandon in
front of their glorious make-up mirrors. Slumped in a corner chair,
while Yolanda’s daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan), writes suicide poems and
pouts until her big stage debut. Also performing, the musical cowboy duo
Dusty and Lefty (John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson) offer a musical
tribute to bad jokes, bringing down the house and boiling the temper of
the show manager.
Meanwhile, an angel of death known as the Dangerous Woman (Virginia
Madsen) tiptoes gracefully around the edges of things like someone
wandering in from a Wim Wenders film. She’s the film’s riskiest
bit of whimsy, and more than a little bit ridiculous, but
Madsen’s presence is blessing enough to justify the
All of this is leading to Lola’s big debut, and we’re all anticipating a
showstopper. Surprisingly, her performance is
nothing special at all… and I found myself
disappointed. Later, I realized that my disappointment was a flaw in
me, not in the film.
Altman’s whole point is that we are losing the
kind of show that celebrates the good things, and it’s being replaced by
the kind of show that celebrates personality and ego. It’s a gentle
reprimand to the American-idle masses who subscribe to
Lohan's style of shallow
entertainment and magazine-cover celebrity. Great performers
serve the music, not their image or their ego.
The musical performances are not shallow pop or sanitized entertainment.
They're rough, risqué, and infused with gospel. They
a palpable sadness, as if the singers view these religious sentiments with a sort of
cultural sentimentality, as if redemption is a nice
idea that doesn't hold up to the advance of progress and reason. Nevertheless,
these songs provide the film’s holiest moments, reaffirming that people
who are drawn to the best things in life cannot help but end up on
Jesus’ front porch… even if they aren’t bold enough to knock on his
Companion’s “They’re-shutting-us-down!” plotline is a shamelessly
pessimistic formula, but that doesn’t stop Keillor from getting his
hands around our heartstrings. From its opening shot of a radio tower
silhouetted against a deep blue evening sky to the poignant sadness of a
late-breaking plot twist, the film is full of loss and lament. It’s as
if Keillor is giving his own eulogy in advance, and he does such a good
job of it that we hope that the real thing is a long, long way off.
Among mainstream press reviewers, we’re hearing some claims that
Companion is a “return to form” for Altman. Altman has directed a
few less-than-satisfying affairs, but in the last fifteen years he’s
given us some of his very best — The Player, Short Cuts, and
Gosford Park are all standouts (and the latter is one of my all-time
favorite films). A Prairie Home Companion is not nearly as
ambitious as Gosford Park, but it’s still engaging and full of
heart. Not bad, considering this is Altman’s 39th motion
picture. I can’t wait to see what he does for number 40.
In Pixar’s current blockbuster, Cars, the four-wheeled characters
wax rhapsodic about the days before the Interstate, when people had to
drive long and winding roads that surrendered to fluctuations in the
landscape. Those folks got to know the
country, and discovered small towns and unexpected wonders along the
way. Now, in our fast-paced, no-time-for-sightseeing culture, we think
we’re better off getting exactly what we want as quickly as possible.
Thus, we're losing relationships, joys, a sense of proportion,
and a necessary reverence for this beautiful land.
A Prairie Home Companion comes to the same conclusion.
Efficiency, greed, and a bottom-line driven culture are eliminating our
appreciation of the home-grown, the spontaneous, the organic, and the
traditional. We’ve embraced plastic over personality, individualism over
three-part harmony. Thus, rare and wonderful little movies like this
speak to more than our sense of nostalgia. They appeal to our longings
for what is best.
“It’s not dark yet,” sings Bob Dylan, “but it’s gettin’ there.”
In these dispiriting days, folks like Keillor and
Altman are still reflecting light.