Sunday, February 20, 2011

Review: Robert Altman Signs off with Sweet "A Prairie Home Companion" (Happy B'day, Robert Altman)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 157 (of 2006) by Leroy Douresseaux

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Running time: 105 minutes (1 hour, 45 minutes)
MPAA РPG-13 for some risqu̩ humor
DIRECTOR: Robert Altman
WRITERS: Garrison Keillor, from a story by Ken LaZebnik and Garrison Keillor (based upon the radio program “A Prairie Home Companion” created by Garrison Keillor)
PRODUCERS: Robert Altman, Wren Arthur, Joshua Astrachan, Tony Judge, and David Levy
EDITOR: Jacob Craycroft


Starring: Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Marylouise Burke, L.Q. Jones, Sue Scott, Tim Russell, and Jearlyn Steele.

Director Robert Altman’s new film, A Prairie Home Companion, is a fictionalized version of Garrison Keillor’s long running, public-radio variety show, also titled "A Prairie Home Companion." In this film, A Prairie Home Companion isn’t the fabled national phenomenon that it has been for decades (since its first broadcast on July 6, 1974), but is rather an obscure local program performed at a small local venue, the Fitzgerald Theatre (where the real Prairie Home Companion is performed), and broadcast onto a single Minnesota radio station, WLT. The film opens on what is to be the show’s final performance after the better part of four decades, as the Fitzgerald has been bought by a Texas conglomerate that is going to demolish the theatre to build a parking lot.

There is much backstage drama – the death of a long time Prairie Home performer; a mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen) who seems to bring death with her stalks the halls and stage; and the theatre security, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), is rather self-absorbed. However, the focus is on the stage and the performers. There is the whimsical, sad sack maestro, GK (Garrison Keillor), who seems to be an undertaker as much as he is the master of ceremonies and host. His stars include the country-singing Johnson sisters, Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), and the cowboy duo, the Old Trailhands, Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), and more. Still, the Prairie Home performers and crew await the arrival of the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), who will signal the end of both the show and the showplace.

Although Altman works from Garrison Keillor’s script and this concept is Keillor’s, Altman makes the film his own by employing the techniques that have made him a filmmaking legend: the improvisational chatter and babble, the characters overlapping dialogue, and the wandering, zooming cameral – sometimes orbital, sometimes a stationary eye, but always capturing the story that Altman is weaving.

The performances, although good, are mostly small, but the actors make the most of their moments. Each character is quirky, and each actor gives that part an idiosyncratic turn that makes this entire film seem special. In fact, the cast is in perfect harmony, and one can watch the actors building up to this synchronization as the characters continually interact with one another. In the end, the make Prairie Home’s final moments as a variety show an example of simple, heartwarming, old-fashioned harmony. Clearly the actors believe in their baggy and shelf-worn characters. It’s a testament to their faith in Altman and perhaps to a lesser extent Keillor’s creation.

Ultimately, A Prairie Home Companion is an unusual film, simple and sometimes profound. It’s a fantasy about a kind of public performance that has nothing to do with big event corporate entertainment or prepackaged amusements put together by media conglomerates, which have all the soul one would expect from plastic. A Prairie Home Companion begs you to watch such stellar talent create an idealized version of something from another time – variety radio programs – and watch them do it with such conviction that you don’t want to leave your strange new friends. You’re worried that someone might hurt them and stop what they do – you care.

7 of 10

Saturday, July 22, 2006


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