A Prairie Home Companion Review
By Joe Lozito
Home Bittersweet Home
I suppose it's only fair to point out that I've never listened to Garrison Keillor's long-running public radio show "A Prairie Home Companion". So I approached his collaboration with Robert Altman with a fresh set of eyes - and ears, of course - and I was delighted almost from start to finish. The film, also named "A Prairie Home Companion" is about a close to a slice of radio nostalgia as you're going to get. And in Mr. Altman's capable hands, it's a bittersweet trifle that goes down like a glass of iced tea on a warm porch swing.
Like Woody Allen's "Radio Days" - but set in the present - "Prairie" has an unmistakable tone. The characters are stuck in a kind of timewarp, as the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones, running over his lines like a steamroller) points out. The conceit of the film is that "Prairie" - the radio show - is being shut down and we are witness to its final performance. While Mr. Keillor presides over the production, Mr. Altman gives us a backstage pass to of the intertwining subplots and, of course, dialogue.
Mr. Keillor plays himself with the kind of self-deprecating wink you'd expect as a kind of man who never stops telling a story. Early in the film, as he's led to the microphone by a beleaguered assistant stage manager (SNL's Maya Rudolph), he continues soliloquizing right until the moment the curtain rises. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin play the last remaining Johnson Sisters, part of a family of vocalists that seems to go back for generations. Both actresses, aging wonderfully, are perfectly matched as the singing sisters and I suppose it should come as no surprise that Ms. Streep's voice is beautiful (Ms. Tomlin is no slouch either). Lindsay Lohan, slightly out of her element, acquits herself nicely as Ms. Streep's bratty young daughter.
The film opens with a near-perfect voice-over in classic gumshoe style by Guy Noir (the incomparable Kevin Kline), a clumsy detective taken right out of the Dashiell Hammett playbook (just listen to him describe the dame in a white dress that walked into his office). That dame happens to be played by Virginia Madsen, luminous as ever, as "Dangerous Woman". Depending on how you take her, Ms. Madsen's character is an odd supernatural element to a story otherwise grounded in a kind of meta-reality. Her presence both drives the story and muddies it. It's as if Mr. Keillor needed some kind of plot to string together his collection of musical numbers. Amusingly, he didn't. It's enough to watch the performers doing their thing.
Special mention should go to Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as a pair of dusty cowboys (complete with six-shooters) who turn up for some comic relief (in the form of lude country songs). Like the Johnson Sisters, the two sound like they've been singing together for years.
Alternatively wistful and satirical, "Prairie" isn't an Altman classic, but it's a fine time. For all their backstage antics, Mr. Keillor's - and Mr. Altman's - performers put on a helluva show.