We always enjoy listening to Garrison Keilor's radio show, "A Prarie Home Companion," either on the Saturday night live broadcast or when rebroadcst here Sunday afternoon, when we can catch it. The show is a comvortable and pleasant as conversation with an old friend. "A Prairie Home Companion," the movie, is an alternate-world view, from Keilor's imagination as realized by director Robert Altman. In it we see an evening of the last performance of the radio program. In this world, the show is an anchronistic holdout braodcast on a single station, which has now been sold to a big conglomerate. The new owners will take the show off the air and close down and raze the old theatre where it takes place. Plot? There is no plot--this is a Robert Altman film, after all, and, like "Nashville" and other films, he applies his tradmark techniques to capturing a slice of life in time.
This version of the show has the melancholy drama that on thinks Keilor might wish for in life. Small dramas of life and death play out in the duration of the show from warm-up to closing. While based on the real program, the differences in the fantasy world are profound. here, Guy Noir, Keilor's detective alter ego, exists, and is the theatre's security man. Kevin Kline plays Noir as Kelior might wish himself to be--sharp looking and a sharp dresser. However, this Noir is mostly clueless, as distinguished from Keilor's radio Noir, who is sharp in mind but rumpled in person. Cowboy personae Lefty and Dusty also get incarnated as real people, a singing cowboy act that is a regular part of the show, played here by John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson. Actresses Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin play the Johnson Sisters, the remaining two of a family old-time-country singing act.
One of the disappointments of the movie is the extent to which the sketch comedy gets thrust into the background. There is no "News from Lake Wobegone," and company stalwarts Tim Russell and Sue Scott appear only in bit parts as the show's director and makeup lady. Sound effects man Tom Keith gets to do a bit, but it's very uninspired compared with some of the fantasias done on air, partly due to being tied in with fallout from G.K.'s supposed past affair with Yolanda Johnson (Streep). The impression you would get from the show as shown in the movie is that it is a mostly musical presentation, leaning heavily toward the "Old Time Gospel Hour" more than a comedy program.
I was also somewhat disappointed in the music given to Streep and Tomlin. One could at least have expected they might be allowed to belt out some of the genuine old-time classics, but instead they are stuck with Keilor-altered parodies like "My Minnesota Home," which are not his best work, even as parodies. In fact, the music choices for the entire movie seem uninspired. Keilor's duet with Streep, "Gold Watch and Chain," is a sad piece that nevertheless lacks any real feeling. (And as a side note, how does Keilor have the guts to credit himself the music of "I Used to Work in Chicago"?)
In fact, "sad without any real feeling" is the way much of the movie strikes me. It would be a fun piece for someone to do a detailed analysis of the way Keilor plays out his self-deprecation on film. His character "G.K." is shown as a fabulist--he relates parts of at least three different stories as to how he got into radio--but disconnected from other people. Yolanda states she broke up with him because she knew he would not cry, and he refuses to either eulogize the cast member who dies during the show or say any last words from the stage about the shows' closing.
On the other hand, it is great fun to see the people in the real: in addition to those already mentioned, we see musicians Robin and Linda Williams, Peter Ostrushko, and Rich Dworsky and the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band. Actress Virginia Madsen comes close to being a Guy Noir "Dangerous Woman" vision incarnate, and it's fun to see Tommy Lee Jones sending up one of his single-minded roles as the Corporate Axman.
I was rather bemused to see that the movie about the very wholesome radio show was rated PG-13, which seems to be for some "sexual innuendo" among the characters, but mostly for the grown-up version of the "Bad Joke Song" in which Dusty and Lefty decide to go out with a bang.
Verdict: Fun for fans of the radio show. Others won't get it.