I’ve never been a fan of Garrison Keillor’s radio variety show, but when I met the man on screen in director Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” I instantly liked him.
“Companion,” which opened nationwide Friday, features a quintessential Altman cast—Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly and more—in the service of translating something of Keillor’s long-running show to the screen. It’s a good time at the movies.
Keillor himself penned the script, whose dynamics are hard to understand. It’s a movie based on a real radio show about fictitious times on the Minnesota prairie. Promotional material calls the film a “comic backstage fable.” Yes, it’s that. It also feels like a stage play, which I suppose is only fitting given the way the media are mixing.
The film takes us backstage at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., where station WLT is broadcasting its last show of “A Prairie Home Companion”—a radio variety show with music, jokes, jingles and stories.
It’s the last show because a Texas conglomerate (personified by Tommy Lee Jones as “The Axeman”) has purchased WLT and is canning the whole thing. As a character says about the impending cancellation, “There won’t be anything left on the radio except people yelling at you and computers playing music.”
So it is that various show personalities roam about backstage and onstage—the Johnson sisters (Yolanda and Rhonda, played beautifully by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin); the cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly); and so on.
Guarding the wings is Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a private eye who’s taken work doing security for the show. One of the script’s shortcomings is the role for Klein. The portrayal of his character as virtually living in a different time only confuses more when we don’t need any more confusing. His subtleties are terrific, but he narrates the film and is our main identifier. Making his character so difficult to figure out was a mistake.
Another odd turn is the storyline involving the “Dangerous Woman,” played by Virginia Madsen in a bright white trench coat. Her narrative line is equally odd but much more redemptive, as her character—and what she represents—carries the whole narrative punch of the film.
But back to G.K. for a moment. We first encounter Keillor—playing himself, essentially, as the emcee of the show—in his boxer shorts, his hypnotic voice telling yet another story as Altman lets other yarns spin around him, cutting back and forth, moving through a Fitzgerald bathed in nostalgic amber hues. (Incidentally, everything but the first and last scenes were shot in the Fitzgerald Theater, where Keillor’s real show is produced.)
In some ways, this is the perfect vehicle for Altman (“MASH,” “Gosford Park,” “Short Cuts”). He finds the eloquence in backstage yakking and overtalk, letting the various conversations seep into the cracks of the old theater—as well as the attentive audience member. Tune out for a second, and you’ll miss a lot.
Like hilarious references to “a grilled chicken sandwich with beans for a chaser.” Like hearing Yolanda respond to her teenage daughter’s suicide obsession with nothing more than the classic Minnesotan “Oh, okay.”
The film dances with not only the spirit of Keillor’s show, but also that of the Grand Ole Opry (which inspired Keillor). Radio jingles form a cultural shorthand; everyone knows them and loves them. Memories are built around them.
And memories are, of course, built around the music—enlivened in the film by the real musicians from Keillor’s show.
“Companion” has a few shortcomings—the ambiguity with Klein, the lame payoff with Lindsay Lohan’s character—but it’s hard not to want to spend an evening with that cast in that theater.
Keillor and Altman’s blend of music, jokes and stories will have you humming “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” on your way home and contemplating that Dangerous Woman. See the movie and you’ll understand.
More films should be so ambitious and come half as close to pulling it off …
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for risqué humor. Reviewer’s Note: Some off-color jokes from the cowboys Dusty and Lefty, but that’s about it.
Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Garrison Keillor (based on his radio show)
Cast: Dusty: Woody Harrelson; Lefty: John C. Reilly; Axeman: Tommy Lee Jones; Dangerous Woman: Virginia Madsen; G.K.: Garrison Keillor; Molly: Maya Rudolph; Guy Noir: Kevin Kline; Lola Johnson: Lindsay Lohan; Yolanda Johnson: Meryl Streep; Rhonda Johnson: Lily Tomlin; Chuck Akers: L.Q. Jones; Lunch Lady: Marylouise Burke.
The movie’s official Web site is here.