A Prairie Home Companion review

:. Director: Robert Altman
:. Starring: Garrison Keillor, Lily Tomlin
:. Running Time: 1:45
:. Year: 2006
:. Country: USA


Radio is the dying medium. The empire of Walter Winchell and Edward Murrow, of Jack Benny and Charlie McCarthy, of the Saint and the Shadow, has become a secondhand source of old-time entertainment and political hostility. The era of consoling government poets, Dust Bowl crooners, comedic cabarets and spellbinding noirs faded with the rise of television and is now a cultural commodity resigned to attics and antique shops. Radio was no longer suitable for the thirsting, escapist population.

Robert Altman's latest film is the personified death of radio. Based on the famed thirty-year NPR program of the same name, A Prairie Home Companion takes place during the final broadcast of the titular show. Written by Garrison Keillor, the famed Minnesotan storyteller and host of the real Prairie Home Companion, the film preserves his decades-old menagerie of characters, finalizing a cast of over two dozen who sing, act, and play for a crowd of enthusiastic but thinning devotees; together they seem to haunt the theatre, flowing across the stage and through the wings like remnants of a bygone broadcasting era, summoned from the past for one final hurrah. From wisecracking cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, respectively) to detective Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) and an angel known only as the Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen), the PHC company illuminates humanity in entertainment. Two singing sisters, Rhonda and Yolanda (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, again respectively), converse and sing in wistful hickish glee, while Yolanda's songstress daughter Lola (Lindsey Lohan) harmonizes about suicide.

True to Altman's style, the faultless overlapping dialogue and crafty camerawork give the film a homespun feel. Rather than shooting on a soundstage, A Prairie Home Companion was filmed in the Fitzgerald Theatre in downtown St. Paul, the intermittent home of Keillor's radio show for the last 30 years. The acting is superb, almost transcendent, with only a few lines muttered flatly. Reilly and Harrelson are remarkable as the trail-hardened wranglers, while Tomlin and Kline are at their subtle, comedic best. Meryl Streep's singing is angelic, and Maya Rudolph's turn as Molly the stone-faced stage manager is perfectly suited for her talents. But the true, lasting performance of the film is Keillor himself, whose conservative dress contrasts brilliantly with his repertoire of amusing stories and impenetrable impassivity. Though his talent seems crafted solely for the radio, Keillor strides from scene to scene like an acting master, delivering the same wonderful routine that has made PHC such a national staple while additionally offering something for Altman's cinematic eye.

At an unusually restrained 105 minutes, Altman's picture is a magical portrait of the American identity. The skillful manner in which he weaves an intricate and engaging story around a multitude of diverse characters, each granted their own private scenes, manages to preserve the rich starkness of radio, all the while creating a fun, cutting tale of its demise. And even though the characters are many, each remains with you once the credits roll like old friends. Initially suspecting they'd be hollow and undeveloped, I was surprised at how much they convey in their short time on screen. Even Lohan, whose film career has been a disastrous array of teen comedies, manages to justify her place in this film with some authentic acting. The music, sung by Altman's on-screen company and backed up by Keillor's customary musicians, is both nostalgic and fresh.

The only disappointing aspect of A Prairie Home Companion is what it leaves out: the much-loved monologue from Keillor about Lake Wobegon, his literary hometown. As other critics have pointed out, the mainstay of the NPR program is forlornly absent, perhaps because the idea of a ten-minute yarn from Keillor, whose character relies on being a self-isolated conundrum, wouldn't play well on the screen. But the absence has robbed devoted PHC fans and moviegoers alike of a genuine opportunity to close their eyes and drift away, gone to a place where "the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average," if only for a sweet, fleeting moment.

  Adam Balz

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