Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Movie Review: "A Prairie Home Companion"

Starring Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin
Directed by Robert Altman

Perhaps better than any other director in modern motion pictures, Robert Altman has the ability to assemble an all-star cast simply for the chance to work with him. Take a look back at the casts of some of his more recent triumphs, such as “The Player” and “Short Cuts” and you’ll see a who’s who of acting talent on display. That attraction had to be one of, if not the main draw for the great cast assembled for “A Prairie Home Companion,” a somewhat fictionalized big screen presentation of the popular radio variety show started in the 1970s by Garrison Keillor.

Watching the cast have fun singing and gabbing backstage is the central point of enjoyment for the film, which has the slightest of story lines. Keillor portrays himself in the film, or at least some close approximation, acting as the emcee, performer and frequent product pitchman during the variety show. Presumably set in present day Minnesota, where the show plays before a live audience and is broadcast on a local radio station, the movie operates almost entirely within the confines of the theater – almost as if it’s a world all its own. The movie depicts the final night of the show, as a recent company acquisition means that the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) cometh, set to turn the theater into a parking lot.

Altman has always displayed a gift at having scenes filled with characters that speak true to life, meaning they stop and start sentences, cut each other off and overlap in conversations. It’s a trait that can take some getting accustomed to, but is one that is likely embraced by the actors, whether it’s an Altman film veteran (Lily Tomlin) or just a truly great and versatile actress (Meryl Streep). Those two women play a musical sister act who lament the end of an era with the show, while another performing duo, Dusty (Woody Harrleson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), seem to take the pending demise in stride. For his part, Keillor chooses to treat the final show just like any other, with nary a mention to the audience or acknowledgment of anything being out of the ordinary. (That even holds true upon his learning of the backstage death of one of the performers.)

The focus of the film primarily remains on stage with the various musical performances, which are quite well done and give the actors a chance to show off some singing and musical instrument playing ability. Yet, it’s the backstage conversations that allude to some of the background of the characters that hold a bit more interest. However, the movie doesn’t seem very interested in delving much into their backgrounds, beyond cursory tidbits here and there, leaving the audience wanting more.

Operating less as characters and more like plot devices, the roles portrayed by Kevin Kline and Virginia Madsen don’t comfortably fit into the story. Not that that’s a criticism of the actors, who are both very good. It’s just that they tend to take the focus away from the show and its performers.

Ultimately, there’s not a lot of a driving force to the story, which causes it to go a bit slack in places. But the cast helps plow through the slower spots, including a winning performance from Lindsay Lohan as the suicide-preoccupied daughter of Streep’s character.Slight though it may be, “A Prairie Home Companion” still paints a pretty picture of the kind of shows that it would be nice to know that radio still offers. But in this day and age of satellite radio and computer programmed playlists, it’s clear we shouldn’t be holding our breaths for them.
Grade: B
(Rated PG-13 for risqué humor.)

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