Even among NPR fans – already a rather specific group – there is somewhat of a rift when it comes to the weekly program, A Prairie Home Companion. It’s the sort of corny jokes and quaint folk singing that went out of fashion a half-century ago, and to listeners it can be a soothing throwback -- unbearably, cloyingly sweet -- or, to folks who drink Tab cola and wear Reading Rainbow screen-print tees, so uncool it’s hip.
The film of the same name is really just a barely fictionalized version of the radio show – the content is the same, the gentle, homey sensibility certainly is the same; the only real difference is the parts are played by superstar talent. So it has precisely the same appeal and built-in fans of the program. Fans of director Robert Altman
will be most pleased. If you aren’t a follower already, well, there is precisely nothing here to win you over. It's A Mighty Wind without the irony. Article continues below
Despite decades of popularity, it’s the end of the road for A Prairie Home Companion, because the radio station was sold to a Texas corporation (undoubtedly one in the oil business) that sent someone north to fire the cast and raze the theatre. Flitting between onstage and off are the cast and crew, now abuzz at the thought of a looming axe: a pair of floopy, scattered singing sisters; two ribald cowpokes; a stage manager harried by the performers’ eccentricities; a tritely rebellious teenager; a weepy sandwich lady and her lover; a blonde in a white trench coat acting as a ham-fisted filmic device; and a house detective so trapped in the dames-and-private dick era that he’s named Guy Noir. At the center of it all is Garrison Keillor
, playing himself as the unflappable, vaguely bewildered host of the program.
The manic energy, overlapping scenes, and meandering (and often unresolved) storylines are all Altman trademarks, to be sure, but as scripted by Keillor, they all fit in nicely with this cozy brand of Americana. Also, the setting falls in with Altman’s affinity for setting films amid the controlled chaos that goes into creating art, which has led him to making some masterpieces (The Player) and some majestic flops (Ready to Wear). Companion, it must be said, is neither.
It does hop with rapid-fire wit, and the cast is enviable, if occasionally baffling. The standouts are hardly surprising – Meryl Streep
and Lily Tomlin
are charming as the flighty Johnson sisters; Kevin Kline
embraces anachronism as the hapless Noir; and though it seems unfair to commend him for playing himself, Keillor is a delightful center to the storm. And though she may appear incongruous on the list of heavy-hitters and accomplished character players, Lindsay Lohan
, playing Streep’s sulky daughter, is either quite sweet or not intolerable, depending on how tired you are of her tabloid persona.
The missteps are unmistakable, though, glaring despite the frantic pace and mishmash of characters and stories. Plot points are picked up and promptly dropped, which is simply ambiance when it is a running joke about how Keillor got into radio, but feels inappropriate when it is the death of one of the show’s regulars. Including a luminescent angel of death worked well in All That Jazz, but here, poor Virginia Madsen
is saddled with a clunky, useless, monotone role that is utterly pointless. And the unevenness of the Noir character is aggressively irritating – fart humor and slapstick who’s-on-first routines? Really? That’s beneath this film, or it should be.
Perhaps the stylings of Keillor and Altman are oddly too well-suited. For rabid Companion fans – and perhaps avid Altman followers as well – the film is like watching something you have seen and loved a hundred times already, but in some new way. If you are outside the built-in audience, however, the entire film is an inside joke: someone can explain it to you, but it will never be as fun as if you just… got it.