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Overall Rating
3.49

Awesome30.26%
Worth A Look: 19.74%
Average: 28.95%
Pretty Bad: 10.53%
Total Crap: 10.53%

8 reviews, 28 user ratings


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Prairie Home Companion, A
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Tastier than a plate of Powdermilk Biscuits"
5 stars

Death is not an unfamiliar concept in the work of Robert Altman–if you go through his long list of credits, you will discover it crops up, either literally or metaphorically, in the vast majority of his films. Therefore, it is not surprising to discover that the subject is front and center of “A Prairie Home Companion,” his latest work. What is surprising is that the surrounding film is so bright and funny and delightful to watch–easily the most shamelessly entertaining and likable Altman film since “Popeye”–that it may not even dawn those who see it until much later that it may be the film of his most obsessed with the subject since his wildly misunderstood 1979 sci-fi metaphor “Quintet.” And yet, the 81-year-old Altman (a man who, you will recall, stunned many a few months ago when he used his honorary Oscar acceptance speech to admit that he had a heart transplant a decade earlier)has given us a legitimately feel-good film, a musical, no less, about shuffling off this mortal coil–one so cheerfully accepting of the subject that could have easily incorporated “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as its theme song.

The film is, of course, inspired by Garrison Keillor’s long-running NPR program of the same name but Altman and screenwriter Keillor have chosen not to simply give us a screen adaptation of the show’s familiar material–a smart idea since each of the show’s loyal fans has already pictured the stories in their heads and even the best flesh-and-blood representations would be hard-pressed to live up with those already conjured in the minds of those listeners. Instead, the film purports to show us the actual live broadcast as well as all the crazy machinations that go into bringing it to the airwaves. The show is an anachronism–an amalgam of biscuit-dry humor (Powdermilk Biscuits, of course), homespun wisdom and wonderful music–and as the film opens, we learn that time has finally caught up with it. In the name of progress, the long-time owners of the radio station have sold out to a big conglomerate and tonight’s broadcast will be the final one before the building is razed to become a parking lot. However, most of the performers and backstage personnel are too wrapped up in the business of getting the show up and running to have time to ponder its passing; indeed, it appears as if some of the performers haven’t quite figured out yet that this is indeed the last show.

Among the performers on this final broadcast are Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), the surviving members of a family singing group that never quite made the big time–when Lola (Lindsay Lohan), Yolanda’s sullen and suicide-obsessed daughter, asks who the Carter Family was, her mom describes them as being “like us, only famous.” Then there is Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), a singing-cowboy duo who have been doing their act (consisting mostly of sagebrush ditties and smutty jokes) for so long that even their backstage bickering takes on the shape of a familiar vaudeville act. Backstage, the performers are herded about by extremely pregnant stage manager Molly (Maya Rudolph), who isn’t above using her advanced condition to get people and observed by “security guard” Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a 1940's-style private eye who has been forced to moonlight at the station because of a general lack of cases involving murdered millionaires and sultry heiresses. Guy’s workload for the evening is increased considerably with the arrival of a mysterious white-clad woman (Virginia Madsen) who comes with, as he puts it, “a smile so sweet, you could pour it on your pancakes” and who may, in fact, be a genuine angel of death. If so, she may come in handy since the conglomerate’s axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) is arriving to make sure that the end of the station goes off as planned.<

Presiding over all of this chaos is show host GK (Keillor), a man who seems to have made it his mission in life to act unflappable in the face of events that would reduce the most even-tempered individuals to a state of advanced flappability. Nothing fazes in him the slightest, not even the backstage encounter with the woman in white in which he discovers exactly what she is and his own personal, if inadvertent, contribution to her current situation. Although easy-going to the extreme, the one thing that he will not do is make an on-air statement announcing that the show is coming to an end–“Every show is your last show, that’s my philosophy”–because he doesn’t want to trade in on sentiment, no matter how deserved it may be. Instead, he prefers to while away his final show by spinning out any number of stories chronicling how he allegedly got into broadcasting in the first place, including a couple of versions involving a naked man hanging in mid-air from a kite.

This philosophy seems to have extended to his screenplay as well–during the film’s running time, there are a couple of actual deaths, a few heartbreaking stories of woe, some sub-Sylvia Plath poetry courtesy of Lola and the imminent demise of the show, not to mention the simpler way of life and entertainment that the program represents, but Keillor treats them not as grand and shocking tragedies, but as ordinary aspects of everyday life that are to be treated in a realistic and unsensational manner because they are things that happen. (As a result, the final scenes of the film, while a logical extension of what we have seen, may strike some viewers as being as shocking and unexpected as the assassination that climaxed “Nashville.”)

Although the combination of Altman and Keillor may sound absurd to those who know the former only for caustic works like “Nashville” and “The Player” and the latter for his sweetly absurdist humor, they prove to be an ideal pairing because both are far less interested in telling a story than they are in introducing a gallery of characters and letting them bounce off of each other. What passes for a plot in “A Prairie Home Companion”–the closing of the station and the possibility that it might somehow be saved–is introduced right at the beginning and then largely ignored (the Tommy Lee Jones character, the one person who might plausibly save the day, doesn’t appear until the film is two-thirds over and scuttles that possibility within seconds of his arrival). Instead, the drama, humor and excitement comes from seeing the characters as they interact both on and off-stage with the easy familiarity of people who have spent so much time together that even such “clandestine” activities as the long-standing affair between one of the aging performers (L.Q. Jones) and the show’s lunch lady (Marylouise Burke) are considered a secret by the participants and no one else.

The actors are a typical Altman crazy quilt of famous faces (Streep, Kline, Madsen and Jones), familiar members of his unofficial repertory company (Lily Tomlin) and a wild card or two (Lohan) but this particular group has jelled together so perfectly that you might actually find yourself believing that they have all been working together for years. As they demonstrated while presenting Altman with his honorary Oscar, Tomlin and Streep are perfectly in sync with each other in every scene they have together and the latter also gets some nice moments when we learn that a.) she once had an affair with GK and b.) still hasn’t gotten over it to this day–two facts which bubble over during an on-air duct tape commercial gone horribly and hilariously wrong. Likewise, Harrelson and Reilly also show a nice rapport together in their scenes and their closing tune, “Bad Jokes,” is a bawdy delight that could put a smile even on Kellior’s taciturn face. Kevin Kline is also gloriously goofy as the spectacularly inept Guy Noir (who only now seems to have noticed Molly’s extremely obvious pregnancy. Even Lindsay Lohan gets her moments as well–she holds her own against her esteemed co-stars and contributes a likeably ragged and mostly improvised rendition of “Frankie and Johnny” to boot. (It should be noted that while none of the actors are trained singers, they attack their musical material with such enthusiasm that you will be tempted to purchase the soundtrack CD the minute that the end credits of the film have finished unspooling.)

“A Prairie Home Companion” is a wonderful film–not just one of the best to emerge this year but perhaps Robert Altman’s most consistent work since the one-two punch of “The Player” and “Short Cuts” restored his artistic prominence in the early 1990's. Fans of his work will revel in how he has skillfully deployed his trademarks–overlapping dialogue, extended sequences in which the camera’s focus changes from person to person on a dime and an eclectic cast (who else but Altman could have conceived of having the likes of Streep, Tomlin, Keillor, Rudolph and Lohan trading lines within the confines of a single scene?)–into the framework of someone else’s creation and coming up with a final product that is identifiably both his and Keillor’s. Fans of the radio show will be impressed with the way in which the charm and quirkiness of the source material has been transferred from the airwaves to the multiplex. And when the film comes to its final scene–a lovely grace note that grows more haunting when you see it a second time–both will find themselves wishing and hoping that “A Prairie Home Companion,” both the show depicted on-screen and the film itself, could somehow keep going until the Powdermilk Biscuits run out.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13721&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/09/06 15:19:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival For more in the 2006 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2006 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/27/16 FireWithFire Altman's swan song. As badly made as every Altman film before it 1 stars
8/23/14 PAUL SHORTT GOOD-NATURED AND WELL MADE 4 stars
6/10/08 CzarChasm Not at ALL what I expected -- FFd thru the DVD for the most part. 2 stars
3/03/08 ladavies this should have been so much better 3 stars
10/10/07 mr.mike surprisingly entertaining 4 stars
8/05/07 ravenmad i fell aslepp twice, no three times. didn't care to catch the tail end. Sorry. 1 stars
5/03/07 David Pollastrini Lindsay Lohan looked hot in this! 3 stars
3/11/07 Ryan_A Actually quite charming, if minda meandering. Cast is marvelous (even La Lohan) 4 stars
12/20/06 Monday Morning Like every other Altman film, virtually unwatchable. 2 stars
12/05/06 Travis A really nice, fun movie 4 stars
12/03/06 colichops one person's "gossamer construction" is another person's "so what?". 1 stars
11/30/06 bubba This movie sucks, Altman totally screwed up a good idea. Why did they use actors? 1 stars
11/10/06 nora If you know and love the radio show- it's great fun- if not- don't bother- it will make no 4 stars
11/02/06 KAREN MATLOCK People who don't listen to the radio show won't like it. I loved it! 5 stars
10/27/06 Tiffany Losco I actually liked this one. 4 stars
10/25/06 Vikki boring, disapointing and pointless! 1 stars
10/23/06 Judy I loved the songs and jokes, but didn't care much for the story. 3 stars
10/15/06 William Goss Like a grin, with comedic high points connected by large troughs of boredom. 3 stars
10/05/06 Helen Bradley Boring boring boring 1 stars
8/17/06 Pn. Too spooky if Altman were to die and this was his last film... 5 stars
7/27/06 Anna Orith Very sweet and occasionally aching funny 4 stars
6/25/06 anne papke made me feel so comfortable, like I was right in the radio audience 5 stars
6/18/06 John Dooley A lovely, touching, beautiful movie. Great cast, everyone, including Marylouise Burke. 5 stars
6/17/06 Christina Did a middle schooler write this? What a disappointment. 1 stars
6/15/06 Billy go outside 1 stars
6/12/06 Dani Such a warm, spirited movie. Bravo! 5 stars
6/12/06 t stewart Very funny moments, ad hoc music video style 4 stars
6/11/06 San Lamar i liked it, great performances by great actors 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  09-Jun-2006 (PG-13)
  DVD: 10-Oct-2006

UK
  N/A

Australia
  05-Oct-2006




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