A Prairie Home Companion
directed by Robert Altman
(New Line, 2006)

Robert Altman has been sticking his 35mm nose into other people's business for longer than most of us can remember, whether it be the workings of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M*A*S*H) in Korea (1970), the musico-political scene of Nashville (1975) or, more recently, the servants' quarters of Gosford Park (2001).

Now he's at it again, this time in the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., home to the long-running radio show A Prairie Home Companion. He's there for the final night of the show -- no, not the real final night of the show. As far as we know, that hasn't happened yet.

This is a fictional final night of the show as conjured up by the show's creator and host, Garrison Keillor. And what better way to conjure up the fictional final performance of a radio show than to make it the subject of a probe by a fictional detective -- in this case none other than Guy Noir, the fictional detective portrayed by Keillor on his real-life radio show, but here left in the hands of Kevin Kline.

As always, Noir's tale begins on a dark night, though this time it's in Mickey's Diner -- a low-budget eatery right out of The Postman Always Rings Twice -- and quickly segues to the Fitzgerald, where the Saturday night crowd is rolling in and a long list of quirky performers is getting ready for their final show.

They include, but are not limited to: Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), the remains of a family gospel quartet; Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), a pair of singing cowboys whose main purpose in life is to drive their stage manager (Tim Russell) crazy; and the host himself, G.K. (Keillor), the somewhat goofy epicenter of all things absurd who seems to spend most of his time wandering around backstage telling at-times contradictory tales of how he got into this business.

Then, too, there are the outsiders who are complicating events for the PHC crew: a somewhat otherworldly stranger who shows up unannounced and quickly becomes the object of Noir's affections (Virginia Madsen); and Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), a representative of the Texas-based cooperation that's bought the Fitzgerald with an eye toward turning it into a parking lot. All this is gradually revealed in Altman's usual style as the camera wanders into and around the theater, picking up snippets of conversation and revealing, one layer at a time, the complications that make Altman's and Keillor's subjects best friends and comic enemies.

We learn that Yolanda and G.K. were once lovers and that if Yolanda had her way they still would be, or would be again. And we meet Yolanda's daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan), a bespectacled introvert who spends her spare time writing suicide poems.

But plot is only a minor element in Altman films, and just one of many things to treasure in A Prairie Home Companion.

First there's the look, which is absolutely stunning. Altman makes the most of the claustrophobic landscape of the Fitzgerald. The stage performances are especially well shot, with darkness rimming brilliantly lit performers and backdrops. That contrasts with the warm light of the dressing rooms, where much of the most important action takes place.

But all that pales before the real centerpiece of the PHC stage: the performers. Once the curtain rises, the audience is bombarded with one topnotch musical number after another, with acts like Robin and Linda Williams and the All-Star Shoe Band with bandleader Rich Dworsky on piano and organ and Pat Donohue on guitar, not to mention some of the silliest sounds ever devised by sound effects man Tom Keith and the Twainish jabbering of G.K. Yet even they pale before the workings of gospel diva Jearlyn Steele, and if any of you can sit through Dusty and Lefty's rendition of "Dirty Jokes" without laughing yourself silly, then you're a better fan than I.

In fact, in all of Prairie Home Companion I found only one thing that just didn't seem to work: Lohan's Lola. From her first appearance, she never seemed quite real: while in her climactic singing debut on the PHC stage, she seems all too real -- and none too talented. Fortunately, Keillor provides an epilogue in which Lohan is more in her element, and viewers can turn their attention back to workings that work.

For in the end, A Prairie Home Companion, like so many Altman films, is a cinematic combo platter to die for. It weaves together a rich collection of characters, stories, songs and scenes in ways most people -- and few directors -- would even consider.

That alone makes it worthy of your consideration.

by Miles O'Dometer
10 February 2007

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