If you’re like me, and are one of the two hundred and ninety six million people each week who do not listen to Garrison Kellior’s weekly radio show, there is a good chance that you still might enjoy the filmed version of the show, unless of course you are unable to allow yourself to become awash with enjoyably bad jokes, quirky corny puns and the kind of down home entertainment that doesn’t have much of a place in the biggest cities on either coastline. But being unfamiliar with the show shouldn’t keep you from keeping up with all the comings and goings on screen. In a nutshell, there’s this little variety radio show out of St. Paul, Minnesota, that’s been on the air for more than thirty years, called A Prairie Home Companion, led by its pragmatic hangdog master of ceremonies GK, which will after this night’s broadcast go off the air, thanks to its home radio station being sold off to a large Texas conglomerate, which has plans to demolish the classic theatre where the show makes its home in order to build a new parking lot. Not that GK is all that upset about the sudden turn of events. That’s just how life goes, GK feels, which only adds to the frustrations of his fellow workers. Throw in a quirky sister singing duo, the dour, suicide-obsessed daughter of one of the singers, an extremely pregnant stage hand, a down on his luck P.I. who lives his life as if it were a Raymond Chandler novel and has found his place as the backstage doorkeeper for the theatre, the hatchet man sent from Texas to bring the axe down, a heavenly spirit of unequaled beauty who has come to bring home of the show’s performers, two hackneyed singing cowboys and a madcap assortment of singers and performers, and you have the ingredients to make for the typical Altmanesque disjointed cacophony, which, like too many Altman films, is never quite equal to the sums of its fantastic parts.
At a scant 105 minutes (a half hour shorter than “Gosford Park,” almost an hour shorter than “Nashville” and practically half the length of “Short Cuts”) “Prairie” features too many talented actors with potentially great characters unable to properly shine because there just isn’t enough time to give most of them their due. Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, respectively) clearly have a long history with the show and, especially in Yolanda’s case, its host, but we only get to hear only a few moments of the saga, which barely informs some of the happenings during the show. Why would Yolanda be so upset with GK about their failed relationship, when both of them tell parts of their back story to Yolanda’s daughter Lola (Lindsey Lohan) which seem to indicate nothing ever happened between themr Being the no-nonsense unemotional person he is, there would be no reason for GK to lie or mislead the young lass, the product of a union between the singer and GK’s late best friend. These moments give all four actors great but far-too-brief flashes of warmth and tenderness, ones that are forced to abruptly end in order to get to the next wacky moment on stage.
There isn’t a bad performance in the entire group, something that shouldn’t be all too surprising coming from a filmmaker who constantly allows his actors the freedom to go wherever they feel the scene needs to go, who regularly casts some of the best actors of the day, as well as many who should be considered as such if only other producers and directors would give them half the chance. While the film might make us wonder what Garrison Keillor would do in films if he ever did give up the show again, the one true star of Keillor’s film is Kevin Kline. His Guy Noir (one of Keillor’s many characters on the radio show) is almost what you would expect if Stanley Donen had directed Buster Keaton as Philip Marlowe. Kline, equally adept as a dramatic and comedic actor, sadly does not emphasize his more humorous side in cinema all that often, so any chance to see him cut it up on screen should be relished, and this is easily his best fun role since his Oscar-winning turn in “A Fish Called Wanda.” It’s also wonderful to see Peckinpah favorite L.Q. Jones on screen in anything now, let alone be allowed to use his uniquely velvety voice to sing a beautiful little song about friendship, a bittersweet moment whose poignancy is punctuated just a few moments later.
That song, “You Have Been a Friend to Me,” could be used as the ultimate summation between the fans of the radio show and its host, and probably between its host and his fans. And even perhaps between fans of exceptional cinema and Robert Altman, ever the humble man who claims he only borrowed his style from the likes of Bergman, Fellini, Hawks, Huston, Kurosawa and Renoir. However his talent came about, cinema would not have been the same without him, even if Hollywood wasn’t always waiting at the end of the rainbow because his movies weren’t the kind the kids go to. It might be sappy and maudlin, but “A Prairie Home Companion” is exactly the way I would expect Altman to go out, with a big old “F— you! I’m doing it my way!” to the system that often worshipped and hated him at the same time. We’ll miss your ever-roaming camera and overlapping dialogue, Bob. And thank you for everything you did. Except for “Dr. T and the Women.”Rating: A-