© 2006 Ray Wong
Robert Altman is an actors' director, and his films are usually showcases for acting performances as well as studies of intricate human relationships. A Prairie Home Companion is all that, plus a tribute to old-fashioned variety radio broadcast.
"A Prairie Home Companion" is a long-running, popular radio show performed and broadcast live on stage at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre. But something is different today. It would be the last show for everyone involved -- the company, owned by Axeman (Jones), is pulling the plug on the show and demolishing the theatre to make way for a new parking garage. But the show must go on. Such is the philosophy of G.K. (Keillor), the MC of the show, who keeps the broadcast strictly business without any mention of its impending demise or, for that matter, anything else that is not part of the program.
The performers wrestle with their sadness and professionalism during the very last show. They include the Johnson Sisters, Yolanda (Streep) and Rhonda (Tomlin) and the funny, singing cowboy duo Dusty (Harrelson) and Lefty (Reilly). During the performance, security officer Guy Noir (Kline) notices a mysterious woman in a white trench-coat (Madsen) who seems to appear and disappear at random. As the show approaches its end, the emotions become insurmountable for some and they all hope that perhaps this performance really won't be their last.
The all-star cast of actors have earned enough Oscars to fill the sound stage. There is Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), whose versatility continues to amaze and enthrall us. Her emotional yet restrained performance as the frumpy, babbling, reminiscing songster is sweet and nuanced. Likewise, Tomlin (I Heart Huckabees) is the counterpoint of Streep as her equally babbling, reminiscing but more-showy sister Rhonda. Their chemistry is beautiful. Lohan (Just My Luck) is less impressive as Yolanda's morose teenage daughter. It's not that she's a bad actress, but she definitely pales in the company of these veterans.
Kline (The Pink Panther) is interestingly subdued but smug as the indifferent narrator. Harrelson (North Country) and Reilly (Dark Water) are funny as the happy-go-lucky duo of singing cowboys. Madsen (Firewall) is surprisingly but appropriately dispassionate as the mysterious woman in the trench-coat. Rudolph (50 First Dates) is fun to watch as the cantankerous single mother-to-be. Veteran radio broadcaster-writer Keillor pretty much played himself.
In fact, Keillor's script is an intricate character study wrapped in a thin veil of plot, which is really secondary. The story is based on the real-life show "A Prairie Home Companion" which he started in 1989. The story is more about the gamut of emotions (or the lack of) during the last two hours of the radio show. The myriad of quirky characters are the focus here, and through the dialogue and their interaction with each other, we get a glimpse of their lives and what the radio show means to them. The main plot, namely the demise of the show, only serves as a backdrop. In fact, I wonder if the story would have been even stronger if we'd skipped the plot line concerning Madsen's character. Certainly, that part of the story is interesting, but I do question its usefulness in a story like this.
Altman (The Company) is, as usual, fluid and exquisite in his execution. In fact, I am not sure if Altman knows how to make a film with only a handful of characters. He seems to revel in the presence of a large, highly-celebrated cast that is well-trained in giving nuanced performances. In fact, he often lets, or requires, his actors to improvise. The scenes with Streep and Tomlin, for example, are mostly improvised. Altman has a knack for bringing out the best in his actors, and his actors, in turn, love to work with the legendary director. While A Prairie Home Companion is not his most endearing or successful endeavor, it is a perfectly fine companion to his other masterpieces.
Stars: Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Lindsay Lohan, Maya Rudolph
Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Garrison Keillor
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for risque humor
Running Time: 105 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.5 out of 10