A Prairie Home Companion
There are some movies that explode on to the screen. These action flicks are immensely popular and rake in a good share of the studio’s profits. Then there are films that are far gentler on nature. These films flow and roam in their stories taking the audience on a far different experience. One such film is the latest Robert Altman movie, ‘The Prairie Home Companion’. Based on the public radio show by the same name this film is not only a look at the behind the scenes activity surrounding the show but it is more importantly about the people that populated it. These are Americans in their truest, mid-western sense. This radio show which is now into its third decade is the brain child of Garrison Keillor, known in the film simply as GK. Everything that held PHC together for all these years is here in the film. It is a combination of jokes, fake commercials, good old fashion down home music and general merriment.
At this point in my reviews I usually like to go into the plot of the film. This is a bit difficult here, as with most films by Robert Altman, since there is not so much a plot as a suggestion of one. The actors are given free reign to express themselves through their characters. Thankfully the radio show is still going strong no matter what the film implies. In this alternate reality after a long run the Prairie Home Companion broadcasting from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, is about to be shut down by their corporate masters. The theater is to be sold and an era is to end. The events of the film roughly cover what is to be the ensemble cast’s last time performing. Over the many years of the show’s run the cast and crew have morphed into a kind of dysfunctional family. GK is the perennial father figure, kind, gentle and caring. He tells his stories like a dad recounting the past to his children. These are not stories of fantasy and far off places; they are strictly founded in Americana. The cast is uncertain about their future. They have defined a large portion of their lives by there performances in the theater. Among the somewhat wacky cast are the "Johnson Girls," Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin). They are the only two surviving members of what used be a four sister singing act. Yolanda’s daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan), makes Wednesday Addams look like a comedian. She is almost always dressed in black and in her spare time writes poetry devoted to suicide. Even when she gets to sing a number in her nice little cowgirl outfit the lyrics betray her inner angst. "She shot that bastard in the heart, and ruined his nice suit!" A pair of singing cowboys are also present; Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly). They take time out of their constant one-up-manship to actually get a song in. Direct from the real radio show is Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a part time private investigator and head of security for the Fitzgerald Theater. Things start to go strangely with the appearance of two people from outside the close knit cast. First there is the Axman (Tommy Lee Jones) sent by the corporate big shots to close things down. His very presence threatens to put a damper on the good byes being said. Then there is the ‘Dangerous Woman’ (Virginia Madsen) who appears from nowhere and seems to always be around when something happens.
This film embodies the talents of two of the most under appreciated Americans around today. Together they have created a wonderfully whimsical world populated by strange but entertaining people. For many people outside the American mid west Garrison Keillor’s brand of humor may be an acquired taste. He is dry and sardonic with just a little touch of satire. His jokes are not the type that gets the audience falling down with laughter. No, he is much more subtle than that. He weaves his tales often with no apparent point or direction. It is not the punch line that we find interesting but the journey he takes us on. It took a lot to capture the world he created over the years doing PHC; the characters he has built up now have a history and even life of their own. Fortunately a director was found who could mesh with Keillor, Robert Altman. Ever since I first saw M*A*S*H on the screen I have been a fan of this man. He doesn’t seem to really direct a film. Instead he gathers a large, talented cast, give them a premise and let them go to work. Much of Altman’s films are improvised, a true collaboration between him and his cast. Like ‘Nashville’ he expected his actors to become their characters. They had to come up with their own songs and perform them. Instead of using the controlled environment of a sound stage Altman took cast and crew to the theater. This gave a sense of realism to a surreal experience. It also seems that the ‘Dangerous Woman’ might be the same person, or angel, shown in one of Altman’s earlier flicks, Brewster McCloud. This provides continuity to his other works as if they are all part of some strange universe of his creation. This film is so American in nature that I have to wonder if it will play at all in other countries.
As with any Altman film no single actor is the star. The cast each provide a thread in the overall tapestry. Of course no one could play Garrison Keillor but the man himself. He makes the transition from radio to the screen with ease. Perhaps it is because the set so closely emulates his normal environment but Keillor seems right at home here. Lily Tomlin is no stranger to taking direction from Altman. She was in ‘Nashville’ and once again manages to give a surprisingly poignant performance. She also can really belt out a tune. One of the real surprises in this cast is Lindsay Lohan. The ultimate party girl put her all into her role. She embodies her character with true depth and understanding. I have to agree with what many have said that this is her real debut as a dramatic actress. One part of the cast has no lines, the Fitzgerald Theater. It is more than a set; it is part of the group. It sets the tone and acts almost as the emotional center of the characters that inhabit it.
New Line Cinema has become one of the leaders for great DVD releases. They pay attention to the details and give the paying customers what they want. In this case it is a DVD with a crystal clear 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer. The colors spring from the screen with realism. The Dolby 5.1 audio fills the room. This especially holds for the many musical numbers. There is a commentary with Altman and Kevin Klein. I would have preferred Keilor in the mix but the pair does give a good account of the behind the scene work required to make this film. The deleted scenes are available with an optional commentary track that typically explains why it did not make the final cut. For the fans of the music there are extended musical numbers and a preview of the sound track. This is a great movie for a soft, rainy day. Gather your family around and enjoy.