It’s the last show for radio mainstay “A Prairie Home Companion,” soon to lose its St. Paul home to a corporation looking to build a parking lot in its place. Lorded over by creator Garrison Keillor, the cast (including Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, and John C. Reilly) scurry to suppress their bubbling emotions and go out with a bang. But backstage, security chief Guy Noir (Kevin Kline, doing a terrible Jerry Lewis impression) tails a mysterious angel (Virginia Madsen) while weaving through the chaotic happenings involving life and death as the show prepares to take a final bow.
“A Prairie Home Companion” has been a weekend radio tradition for decades now, inviting hordes of the faithful to tune in every week to hear the latest story from Lake Wobegon and delight in a song or two. It’s a powerhouse of love for old time radio traditions, and has managed to keep its place in the hearts of listeners as the years slowly tick by – no small accomplishment. It’s about as uncorrupted Americana as it gets these days.
For reasons undisclosed and quite baffling, creator Garrison Keillor has brought his troupe of radio musicians and comedians to the silver screen with all the critical Minnesota lake cabin allure smoothed out by director Robert Altman (with assistance from Paul Thomas Anderson). To a certain degree, Altman is a great choice; the filmmaker’s legendary wandering camera is again employed in “Companion” to encapsulate the disorder of the final show, the backstage neglect, and to mimic the program’s festive, seemingly improvisational structure. Altman fans won’t be disappointed with the visual familiarity of the project.
Altman is hardly pushing himself with this production; his aging years put to great use capturing a show that relies almost solely on a gentle pace and even-tempered Minnesotan gusto. Coming off his last theatrical insider effort, 2003’s solid “The Company,” Altman’s ease with behind the scenes misbehavior and bittersweet goodbyes is assured, and he’s careful to let Keillor’s screenplay do all the walking. Altman has made an entire career of standing back and leisurely observing drama; however, “Companion” seems to be a picture that needed more directorial oomph than what this veteran is capable of.
To combat the demystifying stale air of radio on the screen, Keillor has taken the core elements of “Companion” and decided to juggle them around to keep the audience on their toes. Fans of the show will be taken aback at the lack of a Wobegon mention, along with other changes to the fringes of the program. To steer the movie away from becoming a simplistic performance film, Keillor has written bizarre subplots to divert attention away from the stage action and to fatten up the drama so there’s something for the cast to play with.
Asides with an angel that stalks the background of the show, the investigative prowess of Guy Noir, and the corporate axe man (Tommy Lee Jones, doing absolutely nothing here) sent to close the building have been written and directed in such a way that they bleed profundity without much effort. These scenes also lack the necessary weight they were intended to hold.
In fact, these disagreeable and esoteric asides manage to suffocate the mood of the show when Altman cuts back to them, leaving gaps in the jubilant atmosphere that “Companion” traditionally provides to its listeners. In an effort to distinguish his product for this big screen affair, Keillor has managed to tamper with his homegrown formula in ways that will put the casual viewer to sleep and perhaps confuse his fervent fanbase to a point of complete disinterest.
What Altman and Keillor positively nail is the cheery thrill of radio performance, and they’ve brought in a game cast to get the job done. Presided over by Keillor, with his golden-throated mediations on Minnesota life and wacky commercial breaks, Altman finds perfection in Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as a sister singing duo consumed with family history (including daughter Lindsay Lohan). The two actresses are, against all odds, evenly matched, and they dig into the musical sequences with a joy and confident spirit that the rest of this trying film could’ve used a lot more of.Rating: C-