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A Prairie Home Companion Review

By Shawn McKenzie 06/17/2006

In 1992, I fell in love with the movie The Player, because, even though it had a murder conspiracy plot, it was the most inside movie about movies I’ve ever seen.  When I found out that a man named Robert Altman had directed it, I realized that I had also liked a couple of his previous movies.  Of course, those two movies were the only two movies I had seen of his, they being 1970’s M*A*S*H and 1980’s Popeye.  When I saw The Player, I thought I had discovered a new talent.  When I saw his follow-up, 1993’s Short Cuts, I became an Altman fan.  With 1994’s Prêt-à-Porter, I became a fair-weather fan, since I didn’t really like the movie (though I did like that number one hit “Here Comes the Hotstepper” by Ini Kamoze from the movie.)  Now it is a wait-and-see situation with me.  A Prairie Home Companion is no Prêt-à-Porter, but it’s no Player either.

It opens and closes in a place called Mickey’s Diner, where the narrator, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), tells the audience that he is a former detective working as a security guard for the historic Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Every Saturday night, a group of people put on a radio show on station WLT in the Fitzgerald called “A Prairie Home Companion” in front of a live studio audience.  Its host, Garrison Keillor (playing himself), tells folksy stories about his adventures in Lake Wobegon, “the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve…where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  The show has been going on for over 30 years, in which he introduces several musical acts (some of which he sings with), and makes sure to thank his fictitious “sponsors,” like Powdermilk Biscuits and the American Duct Tape Council.  According to Guy, the show is a genre that died out 50 years ago, but the people involved don’t care.  A corporation in Texas has sold WLT, and they plan to turn the Fitzgerald into a parking lot, so tonight’s performance will actually be their last.  Keillor, or GK as some call him, seems to be denying that this is their last show, because he figures that every show is possibly their last show.  More realistic are the rest of the cast and crew.  Sisters Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda Johnson (Lily Tomlin) are last of a former country-singing quartet of sisters (I guess their sister Connie died, and their other sister Wanda went to jail for 30 days for shoplifting a donut.)  Yolanda and GK apparently were an item at one time, but their relationship went sour.  It might involve the real story of the father of Yolanda’s daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan.)  Lola, meanwhile, writes suicidal poetry (the composition that she has written this night is called “Soliloquy 4 a Blue Guitar”), but she is too nervous to perform on stage with her mother or her aunt.  Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) are a couple of singing cowboys who like to torture stage manager Al (Tim Russell, one of the real radio show’s alum) with bad risqué jokes.  Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones) is another old-time country singer who has planned a tryst this evening with the theater’s lunch lady, Evelyn (Marylouise Burke.)  GK also performs with Jearlyn Steele, Robin & Linda Williams, The Guys All-Star Shoe Band (featuring music director Richard Dworsky), and sound effects guy Tom Keith (all alums from the real radio show playing themselves.)  Al’s very pregnant assistant stage manager Molly (Maya Rudolph) tries to keep the constantly distracted GK on time, and makeup lady Donna (Sue Scott, another alum from the real radio show) is worried about their future beyond the show.  Meanwhile, Guy (Kevin Kline) thinks that a mysterious blonde (Virginia Madsen) in a white trenchcoat who’s shown up backstage might be the one to save them, but it turns out that she is Asphodel, the Angel of Death (who was a fan of the show before she died.)  When Mr. Cruit (Tommy Lee Jones), the corporate axeman who has arrived in town to watch the final show, confirms that the Fitzgerald will be no longer after this evening, Guy wonders if he can use the Dangerous Lady to his advantage to possibly save the theater.

Before I saw this movie, I rented Altman’s 1975 “classic” Nashville (I only say “classic” because that’s what I’ve heard from other critics that it is considered his best movie.)  While Nashville was okay, it didn’t really do a lot for me.  I felt the same thing about Prairie.  There is a joke that Madsen’s character asks GK about…“Two penguins are standing on an ice floe.  The first penguin says, ‘You look like you’re wearing a tuxedo.’  The second penguin says, ‘What makes you think I’m not?’”  Apparently, that was the joke that she heard on his show right before she died, and she wondered why the joke was supposed to be funny.  That would have to be the question I thought to myself about most of this movie (and of the comedic moments in Nashville.)

It’s not like there weren’t any actual funny parts.  Harrelson and Reilly have one great scene where they are performing the song “Bad Jokes,” which is a crack-up.  Also, I loved Kline’s gumshoe character, but as funny as he was, he seemed so out of place with the rest of the movie.  Not that anyone was taking their characters all that seriously, but Kline’s slapstick character acted like The Pink Panther’s bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

The acting was decent all around.  Keillor, who wrote the screenplay based on a story written by him and Ken LaZebnik, did okay job essentially playing a version of the man himself.  Streep and Tomlin had good chemistry as one-half of a former country-singing quartet of sisters.  Lohan’s attempt to do “grown-up” material paid off (though I don’t see her attempting to take on too many indie roles in the future.)

With so many characters, the movie was bound to be a little congested.  Even though Madsen and Jones were important characters to the story, ironically, they were rather uninteresting (probably because they were the least humorous.)

That might be the biggest problem with A Prairie Home Companion.  Altman was attempting to visualize a radio show that has never really had a plot (for the record…the show still exists today, and there has not been word that it will be shut down any time soon.)  It was just Keillor spinning some tales from his Lake Wobegon days, singing along with a group of country-tinged performers, and interjecting several fake “sponsors.”  While it might be entertaining as a radio show, when you attempt to tack on a plot, it becomes a little dull.  The best parts of the movie were the onstage performances, so I think that they might have had better success doing a documentary/performance film rather than a movie with a plot.  Despite the word that Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson was employed as a standby director in case Altman should keel over (he was 80 years old at the time), I don’t think that this movie will be his swan song.  I hope that he has another Player in him before he goes through the Pearly Gates.

Get the soundtrack featuring the cast performing their songs from the movie:

Get the DVD of the 30th Year Anniversary broadcast of the show:

Get Garrison Keillor's 1985 novel Lake Wobegon Days:

Buy these items at

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