Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Movie Review--A Prairie Home Companion

Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor combine reality and fantasy in this smooth, ebullient take on the long-running
Prairie Home Companion radio show. Set during the show's fictitious last broadcast--the host station has been bought--the film has plenty of elements from the real PHC radiocasts, including a live audience and the sensational Shoe band. The onstage program is mostly music numbers, a beguiling mix of standards and old-style country. However, the show's usual comedy sketches are never presented, save for the commercial parodies--this may be a PHC show, but Lake Wobegone is never mentioned. Instead, the sketches are played out as backstage banter that feautres the Johnson Sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), a harried stage hand (Maya Rudolph), a former listener turned angel (Virginia Madsen), and Keillor himself (a crusty alter-ego named simply G.K.). A few characters from the real PHC are given life: the singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty and gumshoe Guy Noir are embodied by Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, and Kevin Kline, respectively. Old flames are fanned, stories are spun, new talents are found (Lindsay Lohan has a chance to shine as Streep's daughter) and everyone wonders if G.K. will do something to ebb the tide of cancellation (personified by Tommy Lee Jones as the corporate Axeman). All of the actors do right as singers, and seem to be having the time of their life. Keillor's screenplay is perfect fodder for Altman's usual brand of storytelling, as characters babble on with the camera picking them up often in mid-thought. The film appeared a few months after Altman received an honorary Oscar, and the director is still at the top of his game, creating this smile-inducing, song-filled time, ending with an ethereal last musical number.

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