Robert Altman’s ‘Prairie’ a welcome companion

Thu, 06/15/2006 - 2:06pm
By: Emily Baldwin

Robert Altman has directed over 80 film and television projects in his 81 years. His resume includes well known films like “MASH,” “Gosford Park” and “Dr. T and the Women” as well as many, many lesser known projects. He has been nominated for seven Academy Awards but it was at the 2006 Academy Award ceremony that he received his first golden statue when he was presented with an Honorary Award “for a career that has repeatedly reinvented the art form and inspired filmmakers and audiences alike.”

For those well versed in Altman, “A Prairie Home Companion,” his most recent directorial effort, will be like coming home. Although the movie was written by Garrison Keillor, the host of the real life radio program on which the film is based, it is an Altman piece through and through.

The film takes place at the Fitzgerald Theater, the real home of the phenomenally popular public radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” which has been running for 32 years, on the show’s final night. The WLT radio station has been bought out by a Texas media conglomerate and it is shutting down the show for good. A crowd has gathered to see the farewell show, although the characters, and particularly Keillor, do not openly admit that this is in fact the grand finale. Rather, they discuss the show’s end in whispers and speculations or not at all. Altman’s camera acts as a window into the different character’s dressing rooms behind the set as well as an on-stage presence, a member of the live audience.

Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin play Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, a singing sisters act from Wisconsin. Lindsay Lohan plays Yolanda’s death-obsessed daughter who spends her time writing poems about suicide and mopes around set, rolling her eyes at her mother and aunt’s whimsical behavior. In the end, Lohan’s character allows for the combination of her mother’s folksy music and her dark obsession with a Broadway-esque performance of “Frankie and Johnny” before the packed audience. Her so-so voice isn’t convincing as the next music sensation, but is believable as the daughter of a singer who wants to please her mother. Streep and Tomlin’s voices fare better through their multiple musical numbers.

John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson play singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty. They share in a “bad jokes” and guitar picking variety show. Reilly and Harrelson are perfectly casted as the singing duo.
Kevin Klein is perhaps the funniest character of the film as Guy Noir, the gumshoe doorman at the Fitzgerald. Dressed in a double-breasted, pin-stripped suit and classic 1940’s dectective’s hat, Noir is a character from the real “Prairie Home” show, brought to life as a member of the crew. His objective is to convince the evil corporate ax-man, Tommy Lee Jones, to keep the show in business, but becomes distracted by Virginia Madsen, who plays the beautiful Angel of Death dressed in a white trench-coat.

Saturday Night Live’s Maya Rudolf plays the very pregnant stage director who is just trying to make it through one last night.
It’s a leisurely, witty and heartfelt film that focuses on the de facto family of “Prairie Home.” In typical Altman style, the film features an ensemble of characters of equal importance who alternate in bursts of energy, talking over each other in a chaotic whirlwind of noise, then waning into heavy silence the next moment.

It’s light on plot and won’t wow young audiences; in fact, most people will leave the theater scratching their heads, especially if you’ve never heard of “Prairie Home” before. But for those who are Robert Altman fans or fans of Garrison Keillor's long running radio program, it’s a film worth seeing.


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