If you are a fan of the NPR radio show "A Prairie Home Companion", hosted by Garrison Keillor, you will no doubt delight in the new Robert Altman film based on the popular staple of public radio. No need to read further, simply go to the theater and buy your ticket.
If you are not necessarily a fan of the show, read on. I doubt even the large, impressive cast will make the film an enjoyable exercise for you.
Minutes before the beginning of the weekly broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion", we meet Garrison Keillor and many other members of his reparatory group. Tonight is the last broadcast of the show; a large corporation in Texas has purchased the Fitzgerald Theater, in Minneapolis, home of the show, and plans to turn it into a parking lot. Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), head of security for the theater, arrives minutes before the broadcast and gets things started by bringing us to date and introducing a beautiful femme fatale (Virginia Madsen) wearing a white trench coat, who mysteriously roams through the theater. The Johnson Sisters, Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) and Yolanda (Meryl Streep) arrive with Yolanda's daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan), who likes to write poetry about death. Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) are on hand to sing cowboy songs and tell dumb jokes. As the show progresses, the Axe man (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives from Texas and watches the remainder of the show, but the nostalgia seems lost on him.
Written by Keillor and directed by Robert Altman, "A Prairie Home Companion" tries to offer both a backstage look at the radio show and a contrived story to give the story a beginning, middle and end. Sort of.
"Companion" has many signature Altman touches. There are moments which seem highly ad-libbed; Streep and Tomlin tell a lengthy tale in which they relate the story of a relative, filling in each other's blanks, adding details the other forgot, and generally talking over each other. There are also a number of long tracking shots, following characters through various levels of the theater, and through multiple rooms. But beyond these few examples, the film is fairly straightforward and conventional. There aren't a lot of the signature Altman touches; there may be one or two other examples of his work, but he seems to have stuck to a fairly conventional structure.
The problem is the film is too straight forward. Because everyone knows this is the last broadcast, there is very little drama in the story. Worse, everyone seems to accept it. Even though this is a pretty standard cliché ("The troop's last hurrah"), the narrative doesn't really follow through on this, no one is fighting against it, least of all Keillor, who seems to view the situation as an excuse for a break.
During the film, we learn Keillor and Yolanda (Streep) once had a relationship. If she hadn't married her husband, Lola's father, she might have ended up with the radio host. Streep manages to make her character's mixed emotions evident, but it almost seems to be an afterthought, for the actress and the filmmakers. She flits about, makes a couple of comments, but doesn't seem all that consumed by it. One thing "Companion" makes clear is that Keillor is no actor. As Streep goes through the machinations of creating this character, Keillor mainly stands around, looking bemused. One gets the sense he would start laughing if this same situation were happening in real life. This happens more than once; as Keillor's character is expected to demonstrate some emotion, he seems unwilling or unable to. If they aren't going to give any serious thought to a behind-the-scenes story, why try to create one at all?
One of the interesting things about the film is the attempt to try to bring some of the radio characters to life. Guy Noir and Dusty, two characters voiced by Keillor in the radio show, are played by Kevin Kline and Woody Harrelson. It is an interesting idea, but Keillor changes the characters. In "Companion", Noir is now the head of security for the theater. Gone are his incredibly convoluted adventures as a private eye and the pointed political satires. Some of his overwrought dialogue remains, but his radio persona seems to be intact only during interactions with Virginia Madsen's character. But she isn't completely interlocked with Noir's character, or he with her and each interacts with others.
Dusty and Lefty (John C. Reilly) have become performers in the show who show up to work every day in full cowboy attire. Why they do this isn't explained.
Streep and Tomlin are good as the Johnson Sisters, showing believable evidence of their years as a sister act, traveling the road together. Lohan is okay as Streep's daughter, but it isn't a remarkable performance. In fact, all three are just good. Not great.
Tommy Lee Jones' character, the Axe man, is a strange role for him. He shows up halfway through the radio show, has a brief interaction with Guy Noir, and then spends the rest of his time watching the show from a VIP booth. He doesn't interact with anyone, just observes. Why did Jones take this role? It offers absolutely nothing to the film and doesn't seem to offer him any challenges.
Other staples of the radio show; "The Ketchup Advisory Board", "Powder Milk Biscuits", etc., are used as bridges from the action on stage, during the radio show, to the `drama' backstage. Unfortunately, most of the drama backstage seems to be of little consequence to anyone.
"A Prairie Home Companion" doesn't really work. It wants to provide a filmed recording of the venerable radio show and provide a behind the scenes glimpse of the inner workings. But because the film cuts away from the action on stage, to the contrived fictional story, we don't see enough of the popular staples of the actual show. And because the backstage bits contain fabricated drama, these don't provide an actual representation of what goes into the making of this show week after week. It is unfortunate Keillor and Altman decided to monkey around with everything so much. It would have been better to simply make a concert film. What they did make is a disappointment.