Prairie Home Companion, A

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/14/06 17:05:54

"Better than getting a 'Red Green' movie, I suppose."
3 stars (Just Average)

Despite a deep rooted love for old timey radio, I never cared much for Garrison Keillor and his “Prairie Home Companion” radio show. The longwinded monologues about Lake Wobegon and those jokes about duct tape always struck me as annoying. And yeah, I could really do without any more mention of Powdermilk Biscuits.

So it’s little surprise to me that Robert Altman’s film “A Prairie Home Companion” fails entirely because of its bumbling, confused, sloppy screenplay, which was written by Keillor. It’s a testament to Altman and his cast that they can take a script this lousy and get just enough charm out of it to get by; “Companion” is worth watching, but only for Altman’s familiar directorial flourishes and a handful of brilliant performances from the likes of Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, and Woody Harrelson.

The movie follows the final broadcast of “Companion;” seems some conglomerate from Texas has bought out the place with plans on turning the Fitzgerald Theater into a parking lot. Keillor’s one solid idea here is to let the whole thing play out in real time, so we can get the feel of the calm and the chaos that gets shuffled together backstage during a variety show. (“Companion” broadcasts live every week, combining the format of classic radio with the energy of live theater.)

Fans of the radio show will be delighted to see their favorite characters come to life in the form of some big names: Harrelson and Reilly are Dusty and Lefty, the singing cowboys; Tomlin and Streep are the Johnson Girls, Rhonda and Yolanda; Kevin Kline is Guy Noir, private eye.

Ah, but here’s the thing. Noir, a very fictional send-up of detective yarns, gets mixed in with the real life of Keillor and his cast. The script presents the Johnsons and the cowboys as folks as real as guest singer Jearlyn Steele, who appears as herself. Sure, the cowboy shtick leaves little room for character - even backstage, they’re mainly comic relief - but consider the time and care put into the scenes between Streep and Tomlin. In classic Altman style, the camera lingers and dialogue overlaps, and here, we’re watching honest-to-goodness entertainment veterans discussing a lifetime of show biz memories. We even get some business about Yolanda still burning over a long-gone romance with Keillor - a bit icky, yes, considering it’s Garrison Keillor, but still, it provides us with a feel for who these people are as people. (Even the cowboys, whose mere existence borders on fantasy, are treated as real, as are a few of the more whimsical touches to the story.)

But then comes Kline, whose character is little more than a walking cartoon. Noir, we’re told, has been working security at the Fitzgerald for years now, which brings him out of fiction and into our world. Only he’s still a parody, you see, his slick dialogue sounding every bit as scripted as dialogue never should in an Altman film; while everyone else is ad libbing and providing a fresh, authentic quality to the proceedings, Kline is stuck in a completely other film. Worse, Noir resorts to cheap slapstick, and seeing this bumped right up against footage of the Johnsons swimming in dialogue is awkward and ill-fitting. It’s Kline’s knack for comic timing (both physical and verbal) that luckily makes the character work - indeed, in another film, away from the Altman style, he’d be great. Here, he simply doesn’t fit.

Noir is brought in essentially to drive what little plot there is forward. “Companion” deserves to be a plotless film, as it works best when we’re not concerned with story so much as we are with the moment. All we need from this film is to watch as the radio show unfolds on and off stage. As a kicker, we do get philosophical comments on death and dying, as characters wonder why Keillor insists on not making a grand speech about the end of his show. Death pervades this film - a notion clumsily punctuated by the arrival of, as she’s listed in the credits, “Dangerous Woman” (Virginia Madsen), whose sole purpose is to drive home what notions Keillor is unable to properly bring up by subtler means.

But that plot. Noir sets out to uncover the mystery of Dangerous Woman, all the while also dealing with The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), the corporate goon who wants one last look at the place before it comes tumbling down. All of this comes off as obligatory - Keillor includes just enough to say he’s given us a story, but not enough to get one rolling. Again, we don’t need a story at all. Backstage shenanigans are all “Companion” requires, and it’s the best stuff the film has to offer.

Despite everything that is wrong with “Companion,” I’ll still give it a slight recommendation, as it does work in small doses. Individual scenes work, some of them quite wonderfully, and a good number of the musical interludes are quite enjoyable. Much attention has been given to Streep and Tomlin, who make a tremendous screen duo, but I’ll say that it’s Reilly and Harrelson that steal the film with their delightful comic antics. (Small roles from Maya Rudolph, Lindsay Lohan, Marylouise Burke, and L.Q. Jones also deliver some winning moments.)

Altman, meanwhile, remains in top form, his command of visuals is still as thrilling as ever (watch as the camera glides effortlessly throughout the theater), while his understanding of how to film a group of people remains the reason why he’s the best director to trust with an ensemble cast. “Companion” ranks among Altman’s weaker recent efforts, but not at all because of him. For that, we must blame Keillor, and his Powdermilk Biscuits.

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