What a shame the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences decided to give a lifetime achievement Oscar award to director Robert Altman in 2006. Had they only waited a year, they may have finally been able to give him an actual Best Director award. “A Prairie Home Companion” is that good. In my opinion, it’s a big step forward for Altman.
For those who aren’t in the know (like I was) or know nothing of the plot, “A Prairie Home Companion” is actually a long running radio variety show put on by author Garrison Keillor. He has musical acts, serials, stories and the like and Keillor himself runs the show as host. This film is an adaptation of the radio shows “A Prairie Home Companion” with a movie plot thrown in with great effect. We join the cast on the night of their final performance as a big corporation has bought the theater where the show is performed and plan to tear it down. Fictional characters from the radio show, like gumshoe Guy Noir (Kline) are brought to life, but still maintain the basic character that they do on the radio show. It’s really pretty brilliant and cool.
Other radio show characters are brought to life onscreen such as the old-timey singing Johnson Sisters, (Streep and Tomlin) comedy cowpokes Dusty and Lefty (Reilly and Harrelson) and narrator Keillor. As the show (and the film) goes on, layer upon layer of character depth is revealed as each member of the cast thinks back with fondness and pain to old songs, romances and funny occurences. Each radio person has made the show their life and what they will do next is up in the air, at least for some. A mysterious, “dangerous woman” (Madsen) wanders about the theater and as she does, strange things begin to happen.
What makes “A Prairie Home Companion” so good and such a bold move from Altman likely lies in the script by Garrison Keillor. Altman’s “fly on the wall” style is here in all its glory as are his innovative uses of sound and overlapping dialogue, but this film just feels warmer than any other Altman film I’ve seen before. Sometimes that almost generic look through Altman’s eyes can seem cold or detached, yet here you feel as if you’re backstage at the show, going through all the emotions with the players. We learn so much about each of them as they talk about old times and then launch into songs that tell more than the stories do. There’s also many “real” characters running around such as Johnson Sister Yolanda’s daughter Lola Johnson (Lohan), your a-typical depressed teen. She dabbles in suicidal poetry while proclaiming to think the show “lame,” but by films end we see her true feelings. All the characters (save Keillor) are fictitious, but there’s a group of “radio show characters” and “real life characters” and they blend together without seamlessly.
The songs in the film are a blast and John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson share one of the funniest singing moments onscreen ever. Streep and Tomlin can’t really sing, but their acting makes that fact nearly invisible. Kevin Kline as the wannabe cool Noir is also great and Keillor brings his drawling, deep narrative self to life as he runs the show, all the while shilling phony products like “Powdermilk Biscuits” and frozen rhubarb pie. “A Prairie Home Companion” is nothing short of a real treat and an experience lovers of the radio show and future lovers of it shouldn’t miss.