From the Archive: A Prairie Home Companion

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I don’t have much to add to the review below (originally published at my former online home), except to note that every great director deserves to have a final film as perfect of a closing statement as this one is for Robert Altman.

Enjoyment of the new(ish) film A Prairie Home Companion is not predicated on an appreciation for the long-running radio program that shares its name, but it may be dependent on an admiration for the work of Robert Altman.

That particular logic problem answer is based on a case study of one. I plainly don’t enjoy Garrison Keillor’s radio program, finding its gentle homespun storytelling and plunking musical performances to be achingly dull. I’ve tried to find its charm, genuinely hoping to discover that ingratiating warmth that keeps dedicated public radio listeners coming back week after week. Instead, I’m left as perplexed as Homer Simpson when he famously encountered a Keillor doppelganger while watching a PBS pledge drive and responded by smacking the side of the set in futile hope that it would jar some actual entertainment value out of the performer.

And yet…

Generally, I enjoyed the film. Keillor’s script (based on a story co-conceived with TV writer and Minnesota educator Ken LaZebnik) focuses on the production of a lightly fictionalized version of his radio show. Hanging heavy over the typical hustle and bustle of a live radio program featuring multiple musical performers is a sense of mild dread as a major media company has just bought out their home radio station and there are expectations that this performance may be the last. Interspersed are hints of relationships between the characters and backstories that come lightly into play through the dense conversations backstage and, occasionally, on mike.

All of these plot details feel somewhat incidental, though, and not by faulty narrative construction, but by design. Altman has rarely been concerned with the rigors of linear storytelling. He’s much more fascinated with submerging his films into a culture and soaking it in. He wants to convey how a place, a time, a group of people feel. What is it like to move through life with a group of characters for a while? There is a main plot that moves through the 105 minutes of the film, and several smaller stories that drifts along in its wake, but Altman primarily seeks to bring to the screen the work of performers, the effort and strain and combativeness and playfulness of the troupe that mounts this production. Keillor’s radio show is an affected reflection of Midwestern stasis, but the film he’s made with Robert Altman is about the focused stage managers and anxious musicians that manufacture the artifice. In their toils, it finds a bracing energy that enlivens the lengthy portions of the radio show performances that help fill the film.

When a film is more about the parts than the whole, the consistent excellence of those parts becomes extremely important and that’s where Companion picks up some static. There are pleasures aplenty provided by the large cast, led by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as singing sisters, the last remaining remnants of a family act that toured the county fair circuit (to Keillor’s credit, he understands that you’ll not find a better city name to use as a ready-made punchline than Wisconsin’s Oshkosh, and making this the sisters’ hometown allow him to drop the O-bomb with impunity). The mastery of Altman’s trademark naturalistic, overlapping dialogue that they demonstrated at this year’s Oscar ceremony serves them well here. I suspect a satisfying film could be wrestled together solely and strictly from this tandem’s extended dressing room conversations. While the more jagged edges given to Tomlin’s character offer her a little more to do, Streep deserves admiration for her astonishing ease and comfort with the on-stage performances. Thirteen Oscar nominations de damned, watching her here it’s well within the realm of imagination that she could bypass future film work and wind down her career having the time of her life with a weekly gig at the Fitzgerald Theater.

Not faring as well is Kevin Kline, portraying the official show detective (already an odd conceit) Guy Noir, whose name is apparently taken from a recurring radio show character, but I presume the tiresome physical shtick he engages in is freshly created for the film. Perhaps Kline brought in some of the rejected gags from his prior production. Everyone else lands somewhere in between, although singing cowboy duo Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly can claim one of the film’s most unlikely comic highpoints with their final song.

This is hardly one of Altman’s masterworks. It doesn’t have the bite of Nashville or The Player, nor does it have the focus of Gosford Park. But it does have the restless bustle of his better efforts, that incessant inquiry into overlooked corners where little moments are as telling as sweeping stories and big points. It is truly, unmistakably Altmanesque.