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A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (director: Robert Altman; screenwriters: Garrison Keillor/based on a story by Mr. Keillor and Ken LaZebnik; cinematographer: Edward Lachman; editor: Jacob Craycroft; cast: Woody Harrelson (Dusty), Tommy Lee Jones (Axeman), Garrison Keillor (G. K.), Kevin Kline (Guy Noir), Lindsay Lohan (Lola Johnson), Virginia Madsen (Dangerous Woman), John C. Reilly (Lefty), Maya Rudolph (Molly, stage assistant), Meryl Streep (Yolanda Johnson), Lily Tomlin (Rhonda Johnson), Marylouise Burke (Lunch Lady), L.Q. Jones (Chuck Akers), Tim Russell (Al), Jearlyn Steele (Herself), Sue Scott (Donna, makeup artist), Tom Keith (Sound Effects Man); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: David Levy/Tony Judge/Joshua Astrachan/Wren Arthur/Mr. Altman; Picturehouse; 2006)
“When Altman lets it be like the radio show, the film couldn’t be more heavenly as it becomingly glides along with its sweetly laced nostalgia bromide.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

You might be one of the many who will enjoy this lighthearted film if you can appreciate bad jokes like the following: “What do you get when you cross holy water and castor oil?” The answer: “A religious run.” Veteran 81-year-old Midwestern (Kansas City, Mo.) filmmaker Robert Altman’ (“Short Cuts”/”Nashville”) latest is a minor film but is done with effortless grace, affection for a superior radio show, folksy humor, classy style, and highlights the venerable filmmaker’s unique ability to tell a story with relative ease and clarity even if the script is razor thin. Altman brings to the screen a charming fictionalized melodrama on Midwesterner (Minnesota) Garrison Keillor’s long-running (thirty-one years) weekly Saturday evening live radio show on National Public Radio called A Prairie Home Companion. It breezily captures the casual backstage atmosphere as its tale centers on a fable regarding the final performance of the old-fashioned and one-of-a-kind radio variety show. Keillor wrote the screenplay and cowrote the story with Ken LaZebnik, and also plays himself as the radio show’s witty, genial and whimsical host.

The scene is set by the expected arrival of the new hatchet man of a Texas-based conglomerate who is known only as the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones). The corporation plans the program’s demise and expects to build a parking lot after it knocks down the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater (named for the author, someone the Axeman never heard of) in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the program originates from on its home station of WLT.

The film sets a noir mood as Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), dressed and gabbing like a gumshoe from the forties, is the program’s head of security and will also chip in with an occasional narration, as he acts to find out the real identity of the beautiful mysterious blonde lady in a shiny white trench coat who suddenly shows up in the theater for the last show and goes by the handle of the Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen). It turns out that she’s the angel of death and is around not to save the show but perhaps snare a few souls (which might signify that in this world corporations have more influence than God!). This noir telling never got off the ground or packed much humor, and took away too much time and energy from the more festive and animated main story line. The main acts are just delightful and are introduced by the unflappable (even when a script for a duct commercial is lost, the emcee nonchalantly turns it into a spontaneous artistic commercial) richly baritone voiced emcee G. K. and include the likes of popular country sister duo Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) and the death-obsessed aspiring teenage singer daughter of Yolanda’s named Lola (Lindsay Lohan); also featured are the singing fun-loving bad joke telling cowboys known as the Old Trailhands, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly).

When Altman lets it be like the radio show, the film couldn’t be more heavenly as it becomingly glides along with its sweetly laced nostalgia bromide. It wants to leave one with the rosy message that life goes on no matter what and shows that as Keillor can so calmly accept the ill fate of his beloved show by philosophically musing “Every show is your last show.” The cutesy conceit, heavily spun with country music and corn-fed dry wit, is not made for all tastes, but after digesting some recent mainstream efforts in contemporary melodrama this one knocks the socks off them without even making much of an effort.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”