A Prairie Home Companion

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey Overstreet. Reproduction is forbidden without permission of the author.
Contact Jeffrey Overstreet at joverstreet@gmail.com.

Director - Robert Altman.

Writer - Garrison Keillor, based on a story by Mr. Keillor and Ken LaZebnik.

Director of photography - Ed Lachman.

Editor - Jacob Craycroft.

Production designer - Dina Goldman.

Producer - David Levy, Tony Judge, Joshua Astrachan, Wren Arthur and Mr. Altman.

Released by Picturehouse.

105 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some sexual humor and innuendo.

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 moments.


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 appearance.


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 keeper.


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 character.


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 gleam with 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 front door.


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.