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As a long-haired leftwing University professor, I am obviously the type of person who listens to Prairie Home Companion on NPR and therefore, the target audience for this new film. Besides being made for a well educated but very small demographic of the moviegoing community, Prairie Home Companion is a very bizarre idea for a movie. But then the director is Robert Altman so maybe in his mind it isn't so bizarre. Altman has directed among many others, Gosford Park, Dr. T and the Women, Prêt-à-Porter, The Player, MASH, and Nashville, so with him anything is possible. Prairie Home Companion, the movie is a fictionalized version of Prairie Home Companion, the radio show. It is called Prairie Home Companion and it stars Garrison Keillor and it was shot on location at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul Minnesota. But that's as far as the real world goes.
The film follows, in almost realtime, a broadcast of the show. But in this fictional Prairie Home Companion, it is the last broadcast ever, because its radio station (not NPR) has been sold to some Texas company that is shutting it down and razing the theatre. Keillor, playing himself, is surrounded by a cast of mostly fictional characters representing the crew producing the show and the Acts appearing on the show. They include the Johnson Sisters (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep) and Streep's daughter (Lindsay Lohan), a Cowboy duo (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), and an old codger (L.Q. Jones). Some people like the sound effects man, Tom Keith, and the Guy's All Star Shoe Band play themselves, but the pregnant stage manager (Maya Rudolph) and the lunch lady (Marylouise Burke) are fictional. Plus there are a few surreal additions to the cast. Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) has been morphed from radio-show character to the security guard for the theatre. Virginia Madsen plays a mystery woman who appears everywhere in the theatre, and Tommy Lee Jones is the man sent from Texas to shut the show down.
This really is a weird sweet movie. It has lots of heart and almost no action. The characters spend all of their time backstage talking or onstage performing. The exceptions are Kline, Madsen and Jones who view the action from the outside. Garrison Keillor is just plain loveable. He just wanders around, speaking in that amazing transfixing voice. Streep and Tomlin have a blast playing the sister act that has been together way too long. And Lohan does very well as Streep's suicide-obsessed daughter. I haven't exactly been rushing out to see Lindsay Lohan movies (Freaky Friday, Mean Girls) so this is my first experience of her outside of People Magazine and Entertainment Tonight. She has to act every scene with Streep and Tomlin and she holds her own. Kevin Kline is hilarious as Guy Noir, the klutzy security man trying to figure out who Virgina Madsen is. And Woody Harrelson and John C. Reily steal the performance portion of the movie with their Cowboy Act as Dusty and Lefty.
Robert Altman is 81 years old and still going strong. And he makes some pretty interesting movies. After MASH, I think The Player is my favorite Altman movie although Gosford Park really rocked. Prairie Home Companion works very well. Altman keeps the story flowing with the "action" swirling around backstage and onstage at the Fitzgerald Theatre. The cast is great and, like I said, it's a sweet movie. One nice bit is the opening credits where we hear snippets from lots of old radio while looking at the sky. It's reminiscent of the opening credits to Contact. But really it's enough just to see Garrison Keillor in action. The movie makes a big deal out of lost and misplaced scripts in the movie but in the real radio show, he does the whole thing without notes. Anyway, if you are a leftwing university professor, this is your movie of the year! Get in the Volvo and get out to see it...