A Prairie Home Companion: Radio Show-turned-film Finds Altman at His Best

The original A Prairie Home Companion radio show is an ethereal delight. A creation of writer Garrison Keillor, the show takes a limping show style (old-style variety), broadcasts it on a niche medium (public radio), and somehow manages to make magic. The show is entertaining, endearing, and reminiscent of a time when radio really mattered.

That being said, it was initially questionable whether or not that radio magic could translate into pictures on the big screen. But it does, delightfully in fact, and the film version of A Prairie Home Companion finds a cast and a director having more fun than should be allowed on screen.

The film hinges on an alternate reality scenario in which Keillor’s venerable radio show has been cancelled. Such a death blow is embodied in the ax man, played by Tommy Lee Jones, sent to make sure it’s curtains for “Companion.” What the film’s audience sees, with the omnipresence of the cancellation in the background, is the final performance of the radio show, both before and behind the curtain. What ensues is a wonderful performance full of heart, surprises, and laughter through what should be a painful end to the show.

The film itself is fast-paced, to say the least, and in classic Altman style it moves at the speed of real life. Barely a moment passes backstage when there aren’t at least two conversations running simultaneously, often with Keillor in the middle of each. Yet the dialogue is played beautifully, proving that lines written at the pace of TV’s “Gilmore Girls” also has a place on the big screen.

The cinematography generally echoes the style of the dialogue, keeping solid pace with the cast while casting a glow that makes itself known during the more poignant points in the film. It is a fitting scheme, however, for a show that is itself a tad other-worldly.

As is so often his trademark, Altman has once again assembled a stellar cast that shines throughout the film. With Keillor always anchoring the show, the more than qualified actors fall right in to place. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are funny and talented as the singing Johnson sisters; Streep’s songs come in strong to remind the audience how well she really can sing. Lindsay Lohan also surprises and delights as Streep’s daughter when her character, a suicide-poet, belts out a version of “Frankie and Johnnie” that brings the house down.

Virginia Madsen also does well as a gorgeous if oddly placed “angel of death” walking throughout the backstage. All of the standard Keillor characters are present and accounted for, as well, with Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as the knee-slappingly hilarious Cowboys and Kevin Kline playing the smooth if unlucky detective Guy Noir.

For those who have never heard “A Prairie Home Companion” on public radio, this film should be a delight. Especially for those who long for the old days of good storytelling, “Companion” is a breath of fresh air. But for film goers who attend as fans of the radio show, this film will likely be vindication on top of everything else. The fact that Keillor’s characters, including the man himself, are so endearing and can move between media so easily is a testament not only to the ability of the actors, but to Keillor’s talent at telling a good story. Needless to say, this story might be one of his best.

“A Prairie Home Companion” – 4 out of 5 stars

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