A Prairie Home Companion
You don't have to be an NPR junkie to appreciate Garrison Keillor and Robert Altman's sweet, gently funny tale about an old-fashioned radio show taking its last bow.
Weaving fact--Garrison Keillor has been broadcasting the real Prairie Home radio show for decades--with fiction, A Prairie Home Companion focuses on the beloved program's final night. The theater it calls home has been purchased by a big corporation and is slated for demolition, so the last performance is bittersweet. While the cast and crew--including the Johnson sisters (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep) and cowboy troubadours Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly)--trade memories, tell stories, and sing catchy homespun songs, a mysterious woman in white (Virginia Madsen) drifts around the theater, watched by bumbling security guard Guy Noir (Kevin Kline). By the time the curtain drops, the full spectrum of human emotion has played out on and off-stage, from pathos and tragedy to joy and triumph.
Actors love working for Altman, and no wonder: He encourages natural, lived-in performances that really let them shine. Almost everyone in the Prairie Home cast lives up to that challenge. Streep and Tomlin are particular stand-outs as Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson; their constantly overlapping dialogue and easy rapport make them seem like real sisters. Harrelson and Reilly are delightful as the comic relief, and Kline is a scream as the puffed-up Noir. This, not The Pink Panther, is the right movie for him to play a pratfall-prone detective. Madsen is serene and enigmatic as the ''Dangerous Woman.'' As her role becomes clear, she brings a sense of gentle peace to the film. The only real weak link in the cast is Lindsay Lohan as Yolanda's morose daughter, Lola. It doesn't help that the character is fairly pointless, but Lohan still could have done more with the role.
No one does large ensemble movies quite like Altman. From the operating room antics of M*A*S*H to the English drawing room shenanigans of Gosford Park, his films offer an intimate look behind the scenes of very specific realities, as the individual stories interweave. That's why even those filmgoers who've never heard a single moment of the real Prairie Home Companion radio show will be engrossed by what goes on backstage in the Prairie Home movie. Altman turns the theater's tiny dressing rooms into cozy, welcoming nooks and uses the cast and crew's easy banter to make his audience part of the Prairie Home family. Set to a soundtrack of heartfelt folk and roots music (most of which is performed by the cast as the show proceeds), Prairie Home Companion is a warm, thoughtful, sweetly funny movie that invites contemplative smiles and spontaneous toe-tapping.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.