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A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin  Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilley, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin
Audio:  Dolby 5.1 and 2.0
Director: Robert Altman
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen
Studio:  New Line Home Entertainment
Features:  See Review
Length:  106 minutes
Release Date:  October 10, 2006

“We come from people who brought us up to believe that life is a struggle, and if you should ever feel really happy, be patient, this will pass.”

Film *

I was going to dedicate this review to my late father, Fred Wiechman, who was born and raised in the Dakotas and Minnesota and listened to the PBS radio program which inspired this movie for so many happy years.  He understood the dry self-deprecating humor of Garrison Keillor and company so well since so much of it is regional and reminiscent of a forgotten age, when good stories, witty dialogue, and sound effects on a crackly radio were more than enough to entertain an audience.   Any show which segregates contestants in a  talent show by the size of the town from which they came and takes the time to read
messages from audience members to friends back home reminds us to slow down once in a while and enjoy life before it passes by.  The show also featured old  fashioned folk and country music that we just don’t hear much anymore. 

Hearing my father laugh at the strange characters on the radio was fun even though I never got the jokes myself at the time.  Being from that part of the country gave him insight to the show’s dry wit, perhaps.  Long after my father’s passing, I occasionally listened to the program myself and realized it was very entertaining after all.

But alas, I can’t dedicate a review of such a lame film to dear old dad.  Yeah, he would have walked out of this one, for sure.  And he would have needed beer to forget it.    I only gave it one star because of the music, though most of it is not very good either.  Lindsey Lohan sings her tune well and of course Ms. Streep can really sing. I am not an expert on Robert Altman’s films but the ones I have seen have always been chaotic and confusing to me.  MASH is my favorite, but I’ll never know why Altman publicly objected to the television series sympathetically portraying the trials of the Koreans themselves.  

As far as this film goes, I am always suspicious of movies which have so many stars and use such a well-known premise or story, but I was recommended this movie by family and friends, so I expected something special.  At least they let Garrison write the screenplay and be in the film, so it had to have something interesting to follow.  I did not expect the anti-Christian and anti-Texas gibberish to take the place of his usual fun narration.  Streep and Tomlin’s characters slam Christians as people who would kill you over nothing, then the two sing Christian spirituals.  Only in an Altman film….

This movie gets off to a much lamer start than the radio program, with the full credits being shown as we listen to a radio changing channels.  Guy Noir (weirdly and sleepily portrayed by Kevin Kline, without any of the fun or believability of the radio character), is actually a security guard, instead of just a character on the radio program, and the mysterious woman he meets is a real one who shows up at the theatre, who is really an angel, but helps no one here…uhm...OK!

Then the first ten minutes or so after that is only discombobulated chit chat between Lindsey Lohan and Meryl Streep with Lily Tomlin (who lampooned Altman at the Oscars when receiving an award) trying to interject something of no interest here and there. We meet Garrison himself getting ready for  the show but strangely he says nothing of interest.   The premise is essentially that a company from Texas has bought the theatre in which the show is recorded/performed, and we are about to witness the final broadcast, but more  than twenty minutes into the film there is no compelling reason to watch any more and we are not sorry to see the show end. 

I sense a “no one talks like this in real life” award coming this way, which is a shame since the real Prairie Home Companion typically has so much good dialogue.   One character even dies backstage, and Garrison is left trying to explain his own jokes.  The film just really goes no where at all and does not even capture what makes the radio show so good.

Video ***

The widescreen picture seems a bit washed out but I sense that it was filmed that way on purpose.  The quality of the picture is fine but nothing special.

Audio ***

Use of the rear channels is very clever, we hear various announcements about how long we have before the show starts.  Dialogue is clear throughout.

Features **

Additional scenes, behind-the-scenes documentary, a commentary with Robert Altman and Kevin Kline, a trailer…well when the movie is so bad, the  features just add misery to company, right?  And while the trailer implies a  happy ending and fun along the way, there are none of those.   There is a good interview with Keillor and extended musical performances, but again you will only be interested in these if you liked the film to begin with.

Summary:

Well…hard to believe so many talented actors and actresses could make such a mess.   On the other hand, it’s not hard to believe at all these days. What is hard to believe is that Garrison Keillor could write just a messy film. Maybe this is why he sticks to radio.

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