The sacred cows of the Hollywood firmament – or Hollywood barn, if you want to be really literal – will receive hosannas from certain quarters no matter how mediocre their output. Some believe that to say something negative about the likes of Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, or Clint Eastwood, for instance, is akin to burning the flag (any flag), spitting on the holy book of your choice, or stealing lollipops from sugar-addicted little children. Well, I tend to like bovines in general, but…
A sort of “Mishmashville,” A Prairie Home Companion hasn't turned out as bad as some of Altman's other films (Popeye, Streamers, and Cookie's Fortune come to mind), but it is far from being as good as Altman's best work (Nashville, 3 Women, The Player). In fact, this backhanded homage to Hicksville radio is little more than a hodgepodge of lame personal stories interspersed with generally drab musical numbers that feel like a tired version of Altman's 1975 hit Nashville. (See synopsis.)
Scenes that – with some good will – might evoke a chuckle end up evoking yawns because they go on considerably longer than they should. No matter how often Altman moves his camera left and right, up and down, or closer to and farther away from his actors, the situations and the characters' exchanges remain stubbornly static.
A Prairie Home Companion comes to life only when Meryl Streep is on screen. Streep is not at her best, mind you, but even a subpar Meryl Streep is more fun to watch than most other performers in top form. Whenever she's off screen, the film sinks quicker – though less dramatically – than the Titanic. Even Kevin Kline and Lily Tomlin, two of the best film comedians of the last few decades, are as funny as a train wreck.
It's as if Altman, who has “demythologized” the American West, the American armed forces, the American film noir, the American country music scene, and the American film industry, is now out to take the luster off that country's acting talent. In fact, the performances in the film range from the off-key (Kline) and the stilted (Virginia Madsen, who deserves much, much better) to the calculatedly “spontaneous” (nearly everyone else). Note: In all fairness, I should add that even though Lindsay Lohan is no actress, she does a truly charming job as a singer.
If A Prairie Home Companion demonstrates anything, it's that director Robert Altman, radio personality turned screenwriter Garrison Keillor, most of the film's cast (and that also includes Keillor, who plays a – surprise! – radio announcer), and editor Jacob Craycroft are in dire need of some rhythm practice.
Film noir-ish narrator Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a former private-eye who works as a backstage doorkeeper (and who spends most of his time bumping into things), recalls the fateful last day of Minnesota radio station WLT, which specialized in country Western songs.
Among those singing their last WLT songs are the Johnson Sisters, Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) – plus Yolanda's daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) – and singing cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), who make Gene Autry sound like Caruso.
Presiding over the folksy proceedings - and pitching duct tape and the like – is emcee G. K. (Garrison Keillor), who understands that radio can't stop for an homage, not even for a dead man who had just been singing onstage. Yolanda and Lola don't quite get it, so they cry.
More drama is brought to you by Dangerous Woman, an angel (Virginia Madsen) who can only speak in monotone, and Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), a mean Texan businessman who's gobbled up poor little WLT. The monotonous – and deadly – angel has other plans for him, though.
When it's finally time for Lola to sing, the young woman forgets the lyrics to the her song, but manages to improvise. The show, after all, must go on.
But then again, maybe it must not – as, with or without Axeman, the radio station is closed down and everybody is sent packing. The troupe, however, does get together again at a run-down diner, where they make future plans for a future that may or may not happen, since that darned angel shows up at their table.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006). Dir.: Robert Altman. Scr.: Garrison Keillor; story by Keillor and Ken LaZebnik. Cast: Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin.