At last, a movie subject for an adult audience and a chance to celebrate the eccentric Midwestern Americana of Garrison Keillor's long-running A Prairie Home Companion radio show. It's an opportunity almost completely muffed in Robert Altman's muted and almost humorless show. It's yet another sprawling ensemble tapestry movie, the style that launched Altman as a top talent in M*A*S*H 36 years ago. This new picture is plagued with a theme that Garrison Keillor's radio program would never indulge, namely a thuddingly pretentious insistence on Death and Finality. Keillor's radio fans were surely not amused by the lack of resemblance in tone or spirit to their cherished show. Actually, nobody has much tolerance for Altman's (or Keillor's?) lame Death Symbolism.
A Prairie Home Companion actually makes the supposed Altman dud Buffalo Bill and the Indians look good. That film's semi-ghostly Sitting Bull is mordantly funny, in his own way. Some critics have chalked up this new picture as Altman's personal expression of his own mortality. Good enough, but if that's true the movie has the icky feeling of somebody decorating their own cemetery tomb.
"This is no fantasy" are the first words in Superman: The Movie. This is definitely not Garrison Keillor's radio show, even though he's front and center through much of the picture. Critics have described the film as expressing an 'alternate universe' A Prairie Home Companion, but why this subdued and joyless universe? If Keillor really did go off the air he'd doubtless end his show with a whoop 'n' holler grand old time. None of the performers here act as if the show had ever been fun at all.
The other adaptation changes are puzzling. The real radio show is of course very successful, making the film's concentration on failure and obsolescence seem ill chosen. Keillors' G.K. character is a dour introvert and he evokes little of the regional Minnesota feeling of the radio show; Lake Woebegone is never mentioned. The audience is always a vibrant part of the radio experience, but even though we hear them from time to time the film's audience is not really depicted, and the performers seem to be playing to a blank wall. The movie desperately needs some sign of life, like the two Old Gentlemen in the old The Muppet Show that used to heckle from a box set. In fact, A Prairie Home Companion really resembles a depressed version of The Muppet Show. Nothing really interesting happens, and nobody gets too excited about anything. Altman's "let it happen" style of ensemble evolution-creates-a-movie, all the actors are outdoing each other to underplay and maintain a subdued front. If this was intentional, it's a mistake. Instead of the "Let's put on a show" enthusiasm of the radio hit we have a grim resignation that might be described as "Last one out turn off the lights."
The structural decisions seem to have been dashed off as if Mr. Keillor were writing a skit that only needed to stand for a few minutes. Keillor's Guy Noir becomes not a show within a show but an unlikely member of the company. For lack of a character to play, Kevin Kline's ditzy sleuth has nothing to do but trip over furniture and join in the formless ensemble banter.
The movie has a bad case of the cutes, while forgetting to provide any real jokes. Our adoration is taken for granted while Keillor recites his faux-commercials for The Ketchup Board and the like. Although a couple of authentic Keillor radio characters are permitted to loiter in the margins, the film spends its time with its star performers. They seem to have been given quickie setup sketches but nothing further to develop. Meryl Streep's Yolanda makes a good attempt at injecting some angst into her on-mike accusations of G.K.'s lack of romance, but there are almost no plot turns to speak of and the ensemble doesn't gel. Old hand Lily Tomlin keeps the illusion going for a while but she and Streep stumble through directionless improvisation. Altman's style of standing back with several cameras rolling doesn't work when the actors have no place to go. The scene where the leads vamp through a sound effects session while the stage manager searches for Keillor's script lacks spontaneity.
There's no payoff, either. We hear Harrelson and Reilly deliver their "Bad Jokes" number and wilt at the thought that it is supposed to be some kind of climax. Lindsay Lohan's character Lola is given a thoughtless 'character slant', an obsession with suicide. Her final 'big break' performance is a leaden dud, as if it was the best thing Lohan, Streep and Tomlin could muster in the absence of a script or direction. It's just plain weird.
The last straw is Virginia Madsen's Dangerous Woman character, an unrewarding 'meaningful' sidebar that becomes the movie's only backbone. She's a colorless retread of similar characters in shows like Wings of Desire, Death Takes a Holiday and All That Jazz, a stylized notion given almost no stylization. When she wanders around we can't tell if people see her at all times, or if she's invisible. When Madsen talks she seems obsessed with her own demise, which happened while listening to Keillor's radio show. She tells that story to him directly, and he of course has no reaction. The show doesn't even try to make the conceit work. It's pitiful.
Instead we get lame Death symbols and references. Lola's suicide songs, the demise of the theater and Tommy Lee Jones' Axeman aren't enough; we have to have a real Death in the house (for the cast to under-react to). Finally, a completely amorphous coda (Two Years later) ensures that A Prairie Home Companion will quickly become a mushy memory. Now what was that about?
A lot of good actors come across as ineffectual in this picture, and Kevin Kline is borderline annoying. A kind remark would be to say that the sincere and good work of the cast doesn't gel because of the material. We don't really get to see Lindsay Lohan do much. Harrelson and Kline have their act down but remain compartmentalized. A surprise guest is L.Q. Jones, who as an aging country singer at least represents interesting casting.
New Line's DVD of A Prairie Home Companion is a fine enhanced transfer that replicates the film's warm color schemes. It includes a commentary with Robert Altman and Kevin Kline that's even more laid-back than the show itself. A behind-the-scenes docu has Keillor talking about his radio show. It contains amusing audio excerpts to remind us why we like it.
Another extra called Onstage at the Fitzgerald gives us the show's musical numbers and fake sponsor comedy tags uninterrupted. A trailer is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Prairie Home Companion rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.