A Prairie Home Companion

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Robert Altman
Screenplay by Garrison Keillor
With Marylouise Burke, Woody Harrelson, L.Q. Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsey Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Tim Russell, Sue Scott, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin
Rated PG-13; 105 minutes

Oh, dear.

I really, really wanted to like A Prairie Home Companion, Robert Altman’s elegant, elegiac filming of the long-running radio variety show that’s like nothing else on the air. But the radio show’s very uniqueness may well have doomed this film project from the start, done in by the attempt to move from a medium of imagination to one of demonstration. And, despite the mother lode of talent they’ve assembled, screenwriter/host Garrison Keillor and director Altman have made a difficult task very nearly impossible.

If you have fallen under the spell cast by the radio version of APHC, you’ll at least get the references scattered throughout the film version, but your disappointment is likely to be more intense. If you’ve never heard the show or it doesn’t reach you in some basic way, you’ll simply be mystified. Both segments of the audience are likely to be bored, despite flashes of wit and some welcome doses of lowbrow humor scattered throughout the film.

Keillor’s radio show has always operated on multiple levels, and the tensions among them have been, I believe, the secret to its strength and longevity. On one level the show is exactly what it purports to be: a Saturday night program showcasing some of the best folk, country and rockabilly musicians in the world. Even if these aren’t one’s favorite musical genres (they’re not mine), the music always sounds better when surrounded by commercials for Powdermilk Biscuits and Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, the ongoing adventures of private eye Guy Noir and the news from Lake Wobegon.

On another level, Keillor is ever-so-gently mocking the whole idea of a radio show called “A Prairie Home Companion,” at the same time as he is pining for a world that could take such a show seriously (and indeed wouldn’t think anything odd about doing so). But the double-edged sword of this ongoing satire of a Golden Age rural past is that, while Keillor does everything he can to evoke it, he is at the same time glad he’s at some distance from it. As one profile of Keillor pointed out, he is the nation’s foremost celebrator of rural and small-town life, but he has spent most of his adult life in cities (including New York City and currently, St. Paul, Minn., where the radio show originates).

Even the folksy, comforting world of Lake Wobegon isn’t actually a paradise of communal Red State values; it’s often a place that anyone with the least bit of imagination, or who is even the slightest bit different from the norm — like Keillor himself — is happy to be away from. Keillor (an unreconstructed Democrat, by the way) understands that our feelings about home and family and small towns are too complicated to be stitched into a sampler or mythologized in a Frank Capra movie. Lake Wobegon might be a nice place to visit via radio, but I definitely wouldn’t want to live there.

Which brings us back around to the movie version of APHC. In an attempt to give some narrative shape to the variety format, Keillor makes the show we see unfolding the last of its kind. The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), a corporate type from Texas who serves the company that has bought the radio station, is on his way to deliver the final blow. Others fret about the end of an era and the need to find new jobs, but Keillor’s character does nothing to even protest. “Every show is your last show in radio,” he says at one point. So much for conflict.

That — and a weird subplot with a Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen) who may or may not be the Angel of Death (shades of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz) — is about it for a plot. Filling out the rest of this 105-minute tuna casserole is some lovely music and some fine character work by a troupe of extremely talented actors who, surprisingly, can also sing pretty well. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are the Johnson Sisters, the remainders of a family singing group hanging on by the skin of their teeth and held together by the notes they warble. Lindsey Lohan is Streep’s daughter Lola, who gets a chance to carry on the family’s singing tradition, assuming she can take some time away from writing poems about suicide. Lohan is actually not too bad, and Streep and Tomlin do priceless work, with the former adding “Minnesota” (MIN-uuuh-SEW-tah) to her arsenal of accents.

Kevin Kline plays dense private eye Guy Noir, and this clever actor wrings every precious bit of physical comedy he can out of the part. He’s constantly getting his fingers caught in doors and drawers, but refuses to give up the Bogart-style cool that comes with his well-tailored suit no matter how many pratfalls he takes.

Director Altman’s loose, improvisational style works for these actors and actresses, and to a certain extent for John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson as singin’ cowboys Dusty and Lefty. This duo, spurred on by the knowledge that the show is a goner in any case, momentarily wake up the film about two-thirds of the way through with a musical paean to bad jokes (“Why did they call it PMS?” “Because Mad Cow disease was already taken.”).

The film could use more bad taste; unlike the actual show, it seems afraid of anything even mildly controversial. Tellingly, there’s no news from Lake Wobegon, which might have brought forth the double vision (urban sophisticate talks about small-town foibles) that APHC thrives on. Without it, the film is dull, repetitive and self-satisfied; what’s meant as a living, loving tribute to a special show comes out as a Midwestern-style Jell-O mold with a few bits of fresh fruit in among the canned stuff.

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