A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION

 

Review by Mark Walters

 

There are two types of people in this world.  Those who have heard of Garrison Keillor, and those who have not.  The radio host got his start back in the mid 1960's, working for a student operated radio station.  A few short years late, in 1969, he started writing for The New Yorker.  But what would be Garrison's claim to fame began in 1974, when he started "A Prairie Home Companion" in front of an audience of twelve people.  Over the years his stage-based radio show has gained a rather large cult following.  It's a way of keeping alive a lost art form, and Keillor has got it down pat.  Some call him a genius, while others call him a silly old man holding on to a dream.  Either way you feel, it's easy to say that this man knows his stuff, and it truly one of kind.  There have been many folks out there who have tried to match if not surpass the quality of Garrison's performances, but the guy is just too good.  After all, he's been at it for over 30 years.  Sometimes controversial director Robert Altman is now using Keillor and his work as the basis for a fictionalized account of what could be the man's final performance.

 A live radio troupe is preparing for their final stage performance of a popular show.  Some of them are going about it as just another day's work, while others can't help but feel nostalgic and sad that it's coming to an end.  The show's host (Garrison Keillor) appears unaffected by the finality of it all, just wanting to do the best show they all know how to do.  Others like singing sisters Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda Johnson (Lily Tomlin) are having a hard time performing without their emotions getting in the way, and Yolanda's daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) may finally be discovering why all of this is so important to them.  Other performers like the cowboy team of Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) just want to perform without censoring themselves.  Their resident doorman, out of work detective Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), finds his evening centered around a mysterious white-coated woman (Virginia Madsen) who has shown up backstage.  Everyone is feeling the pressure, especially since the cold-hearted man (Tommy Lee Jones) whose company bought them out is on his way to shut them down for good.

 This is not a typical drama by any means.  In fact it's not even a typical film for director Robert Altman.  What it is however is a rather touching behind-the-scenes look at how this sort of performance is put together, and what those involved might be like when not on stage.  It's a very touching tribute, albeit a strange one.  For the most part the story is a straightforward tale of how these characters do their thing on their final night.  But there are some unusual elements incorporated, which you'll either find interesting or just plain weird.  Robert Altman directs many scenes in a unconventional manner.  Characters don't deliver their lines in respective fashion, but rather talk over each other like old friends and family do in real life.  It works though, because you don't feel like you're watching actors trying to act, but instead people just having a real life conversation.  One might say Altman overuses this technique, but it keeps the film unique nonetheless.  There are no really glamourous roles here.  Everyone is playing a very realistic and flawed character.  Even Garrison Keillor, who leads the gang with a seemingly emotionless attitude, has his shortcomings when personal relationships are involved.  Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin do a good job playing the seasoned sister act, and both support each others' emotions as the evening unfolds.  Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly steal every scene their in, with amusing songs and fantastic chemistry.  Their easily the most memorable of the performers.  Beloved character actor L.Q. Jones plays an old country singer, who get more than one poignant moment, and I would've liked to see more of him.  Kevin Kline turns in a rather amusing portrayal as Guy Noir, bumbling about with a deadpan demeanor.  This movie fully solidified my aggravation that Kline wasn't chosen to play Inspector Clousea in THE PINK PANTHER remake.  It's great he was in that film, but why the hell didn't he play the lead?  Lindsay Lohan doesn't have a whole lot to do here, but she's actually pretty good in her role.  It's probably not a bad thing that she was underplayed.  Virginia Madsen was the only character that didn't just click for me, but that's probably also because she's an out of place character to begin with.  Once you see the movie you'll understand.  Tommy Lee Jones is used sparingly, but he's pretty effective regardless..

 In the end this film works as a sincere look at this lost art form.  Perhaps it's only fault is that only select audiences will truly appreciate it.  Fan of Garrison Keillor will most likely be very satisfied.  But others may just find it too weird to enjoy.  I've always respected the old radio shows before television took over, and I like the fact that people have tried to keep that concept alive.  But in this day of DVD and internet popularity, it may be a little too past it's time.  I like the fact that Robert Altman found this material important enough to make, and I especially like that this terrific cast came together, all playing roles that never surrender to vanity.  Overall I enjoyed the film, but I didn't love it.  While the underlying story of the final performance is interesting, the subplot (involving Virginia Madsen) didn't quite work for me.  I'd go so far as to say it keeps a good film from being a great film.  If you're a nostalgic kind of person, this is definitely worth a look.  It's one of the better Altman films I've seen in quite a while.

BIGFANBOY.com score - On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best, I give A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION a 7.


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