It looks and feels like an Altman film, but one made completely on a pointless lark. If Keillor’s blandly subverted corn-fed comedy in all its bucolic quaintness floats your boat, then have at it. But for the rest of us, for whom a small dose of it goes a long way, Altman’s backstage take on Keillor’s live radio series is a tough pill to swallow.
The filmmaker’s familiar tone of wry detachment is in effect here as he follows the actors in Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion repertory, their bantering and by-plays, as they perform their revue, as Keillor’s script would have it, for the last time before their theater closes down, taken over by corporate interests. The whole evening is strung together through the wanderings and mock-noir narration of the rep’s security detail, aptly named Guy Noir (Kline). Kline models his stalwart detective more after Clouseau than Chandler’s private eye, and steals the show with his comic blunderings and non-sequiturs. What a shame then that the rest of Altman’s apparatus is nowhere as fluidly or sharply funny, and gives Kline nothing and no one of equal flair to work with. Against the backdrop of the show’s closing night, we get a pair of doddering show business sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda (Streep and Tomlin, respectively) who wax nostalgically over their old stage days, and dote over Yolanda’s downbeat daughter Lola (Lohan). Their rapport, snarled with line readings that are muddling and overlapping in typical Altman fashion, is sometimes amusing, often tedious. Lohan is serviceable in her role as a misfit ingénue, but her presence here smacks heavily of casting-against-type gimmickry. For whatever reason, after The Bridges of Madison County, Meryl Streep has become increasingly grating, whether it’s in a movie or an appearance on an Oscar telecast. Her shrill work here does not buck that trend, though it’s palliated somewhat by Tomlin’s quiet goofiness. Doing their singing-and-joking cowpokes schtick, Harrelson and Reily do their amiable best, goofing and guffawing dutifully, but Keillor’s script is so toothless, so devoid of purpose over and above its “radio days” send-up, that they more often than not loiter amid the scenery like uncomfortable (and flatulent?) guests at a dull party. And what’s with Virginia Madsen playing that trench-coated mystery savior-cum-angel of death? Her character may be Keillor’s way of personifying his theme of the passage of time, the replacing of old, benevolent, community-minded forms by new, ruthless, profit-minded ones, but the syrupy surrealism involved is obvious and embarrassing. There’s nothing worse than a character who spends the entirety of a film uttering cryptic, vaguely profound premonitions. Such characters demand but deserve no patience, and, worse, Altman’s confused depiction of her–corporeal one moment, and ghostly the next–feels like a forced attempt on his part to comment on his own approaching sunset.
In the corridors and dressing rooms of Prairie Home’s setting, he expertly stages competing lines of action and dialogue, even choreographing counter-pointing actions within single shots; this is Altman’s style working to effect. But, unlike, say, Nashville, 3 Women, or even Gosford Park, we never sense a larger struggle of class and culture at play here. That greater socio-cultural context is what’s given Altman’s style, so girded with irony, its savage humor and bite. A Prairie Home Companion, rather, calls to mind a clubhouse peopled by harmless codgers, hermetically sealed from any outside reality, crooning ditties and swapping jokes, but saying nothing to us of any relevance. Don’t waste your time on his mash, and go watch Altman’s two dozen or so better and worthier titles.
Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Garrison Keillor
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin