|A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Starring: Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen, Lindsay Lohan, Tommy Lee Jones
Director: Robert Altman
For a majority of the moviegoing public, Robert Altman is one of those directors you either love or hate, depending, of course, on whether or not you can sit back and listen to a bunch of actors talk (a lot) for two hours without falling asleep. Curiously, my opinion of the 81-year-old director differs greatly from the collective, and while I generally tend to enjoy his films at the beginning, they almost always let me down in the end. His latest feature, “A Praire Home Companion,” follows a similar path, and despite strong performances by screen veterans like Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and Kevin Kline, the film eventually crumbles into a pile of musical mediocrity.
Based on the live radio variety show of the same name, “A Praire Home Companion” takes place during the final broadcast of the weekly program after a self-centered Texan known only as The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) buys out the station and cuts his losses. Hosted by Garrison Keillor (as himself) and starring a selection of country/gospel music acts like the Johnson Sisters (Streep and Tomlin) and the cowboy duo, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, respectively), the show rounds up a respectable crowd every Saturday afternoon, and this day is no different, except that the audience doesn’t actually know they’re witnessing the final transmission. And while the performers learn to cope with the show’s sudden cancellation backstage, a mysterious angel of death (Virginia Madsen) arrives on a mission that may change their fate.
What’s initially disconcerting about the film is that it appears to be taking place in two different eras at the same time. While the show itself is anchored in the '50s and '60s when live performances were more popular, several characters (including Lindsay Lohan, who plays Streep’s angst-ridden teenage daughter, Lola) help to keep the film grounded in present day. This is, of course, the reasoning behind the Axeman’s decision to shut down the show, stating that it’s “the kind of program that died 50 years ago, only someone forgot to tell the performers.” Harsh, but true, and adding to all the time confusion is Kevin Kline’s bumbling detective character, Guy Noir, who looks like he’s arrived straight out of a '40s film noir. The man just oozes all of the qualities found in a classic Raymond Chandler protagonist, except for one thing: his clumsiness, which, incidentally, mimics yet another famous detective: Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther films.
Kline’s brave performance is among one of the film’s best, but the early scenes between Streep and Tomlin are comic gold. The remaining two parts of a four sister act, the women reminisce blasé about old family memories as if they’ve made a habit of discussing the same things every night. Keillor, Harrelson and Reilly all jump in on the backstage fun as well, and though these ensemble conservation pieces are the heart and soul of the film, they’re unreasonably dominated by the endless supply of musical performances. It’s nice to see the actors all lending their real voices to the songs in the film, but sadly, only Streep and Lohan stand out. Reilly’s already proven that he can belt a tune with his award-nominated role in “Chicago,” but he’s given very little to work with here, and when he is given free reign to sing, it sounds far too twangy to appreciate.
Everyone else sounds horrible. Harrelson skillfully fakes a country accent, but so can just about everyone else I know, while Tomlin, whose presence in the film was beyond surprising, mostly just speaks her lyrics like she’s the bass singer in an R&B group. And though there’s plenty to hate about the film, the few redeeming qualities go above and beyond the typical summer movie. The comedy is quirky, and at times even feels improvised, and the writing is as sharp as a 30-second jingle. There’s not much of a story here, however, so unless you’re a fan of Keillor’s radio show, or you just happen to enjoy the occasional country folk song, you probably won’t enjoy Altman’s latest film. By the way, that would put you in the “hate” category.
The single-disc DVD release of “A Prairie Home Companion” doesn’t offer much in the way of special features, but it’s more than enough for casual fans of the long-time radio show. Along with a less-than-spectacular audio commentary with director Robert Altman and actor Kevin Kline, the DVD also includes ten extended musical sequences (“Onstage at the Fitzgerald”) and a six-part production featurette (“Come Play with Us”) that features everything from casting to production.