A Prairie Home Companion
Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and
Virginia Madsen star in a film written by Keillor and directed by
Reviewed by Josef Woodard
Die-hard fans of great American artists Garrison Keillor and
Robert Altman approach the new Altman-directed, Keillor-written
script with an emotional cocktail of trepidation and elation. Would
a film version of Keillor’s beloved Prairie Home Companion
pry apart the personal imagery we radio fans have concocted around
such regular features as the Ketchup Advisory Board and the
Chatterbox Café? Or would Keillor’s domineering personality, and
his blend of faux folklore and dark wit, overshadow the artistic
persona we’ve come to know and love about Altman’s films?
The end result is a happy medium, a nice, suitably loose-fitting
filmic adaptation of the Keillor charm. It’s nothing revelatory by
either artist’s standards, but is a perfectly quirky enjoyment.
Altman brings his own identifiable approach to the task, with the
seemingly improvisatory rhythms and floppily chaotic ensemble
tapestries — qualities that happen to coincide with Keillor’s own
work. Even given its shortcomings, it’s safe to say that Altman’s
Prairie Home Companion is as loopy and companionable a
radio-to-screen project as has ever been made.
At the heart of the premise is a single radio show performed in
an old theater in St. Paul, and the final one before a heartless
new owner (Tommy Lee Jones) pulls the plug. Many familiar elements
from Keillor’s actual radio program unfold, interspersed with
assorted hokum, comforting banter, and mortal doings. Kevin Kline
and Virginia Madsen are peculiar narrative devices threaded through
the film and the theater’s byways: he is Guy Noir, Keillor’s lusty
Chandler-esque gumshoe with gum on his shoe, slithering and
fumbling around the set in search of intrigue and cheap kicks; she
is a lithe and beneficent angel of death.
The film rambles at times — and bizarrely, leaves out the “News
from Lake Wobegon” monologue — but its messes are lovable and
integrated into basic aesthetics through which creativity enables
the license to be loose. It’s a human thing, not a Hollywood thing.
Altman has built his career on that idea, and even if this isn’t
one of his finest, Prairie Home Companion follows
respectably in the footsteps of classics like Nashville, The
Player, and even Gosford Park. In those films, and
this, we sense that the process of diving into a milieu and a busy
ensemble situation (or “building a sand castle,” as he eloquently
put it in his recent Oscar speech), is reason enough to keep making
movies. Armed with his code of relaxed intensity, Altman keeps
cranking out movies that matter.