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Radio at the Cinema: A Prairie Home Companion

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Radio at the Cinema: A Prairie Home Companion

Are film critics necessary? Perhaps not. The Da Vinci Code which was trashed by the majority of film critics, still opened to record-breaking box office. This has led to an unusual outpour of soul-searching among film critics about their role or influence. The fear is, of course, that it might be much less than imagined.

Prairie Home Companion, directed by Robert Altman, has one thing in common with The Da Vinci Code—it is not so much a movie as it is a brand. It, too, is bulletproof against criticism and will no doubt be admired by fans of Garrison Keillor and supported by the core radio audience. If the marketers of Prairie Home Companion are half as smart in selling their film as the Sony geniuses who manipulated The Da Vinci Code brand, with any luck Prairie Home Companion will be a hit. Hollywood accounting notwithstanding, it might make a profit, lead to merchandising spin-offs, and very soon we could be squeezing Prairie Home Companion toothpaste on our toothbrushes.

I would do nothing to dissuade anyone from plunking down their $9.75 to go and see it. It is a harmless two hours wasted in what is probably a smelly multiplex, but you could also spend those two hours waiting for the bus. Is it a good film? No. But it's not REALLY bad either. The worst that could happen is that you could sleep through it.

Robert Altman or no Robert Altman, Prairie Home Companion is unimaginative and boring, and the only thing it has going for it is very imaginative cinematography by the talented Ed Lachmann. The film was shot digitally, in St. Paul, Minnesota, and mostly inside the Fitzgerald, the theatre where Keillor stages his show.

The plot is hokey. Keillor plays the host of a radio show, much like the real Prairie Home Companion. But the theatre where the show is staged has been sold to a Texas entrepreneur, and Keillor has to prepare for his final show. Not much dramatic tension there. To help out this lack of drama, there are lots of subplots, like the very pregnant and harassed assistant stage manager Loretta, and Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep whose careers now consist of playing county fairs. Then there is the strange character of Lola, Meryl Streep's teenage daughter, who is a would-be-songwriter and whose song material mostly deals with suicide. There is also The Dangerous Woman, played by Virginia Madsen, dressed in a white trench coat. She is the movie's “Dark Angel”.

Undoubtedly most people who like Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion will love the film. Its central core are the song and humor skits that are key to Keillor's radio show. On that score, the film delivers what its core constituent audience expects.

But looked at as a film, in an alien universe which has never heard of Garrison Keillor, it is a curious and unwieldy construct, which doesn't work. It is oddly amateurish. There is virtually no chemistry between any of the characters. Each actor is there to do their “schtick.” Meryl Streep is, well, Meryl Streep. Keillor himself may be a commanding presence on the stage, but he doesn't have much presence on the movie screen, and seems—at least to me—oddly ill-at-ease and uncomfortable. The one exception would be Kevin Kline, who stars in the role of private eye Guy Noir, who is now the show's security guard. He at least projects some sense of irony around his role.

Everyone else just acts SERIOUS, as if, instead of a musical comedy, they were cast in a movie about the holocaust. The comic persona—the distance a great comic performer puts between himself and his character—acts as the wedge between a psychological portrait and its critique. In his best comic films like M*A*S*H, Altman certainly achieves this self-reflexive edge. In Prairie Home Companion, the edge is missing, and the comedy feels as if everyone struggles to their utmost, but because we see the effort, any sense of irony is dead on arrival.

Keillor co-wrote the film himself, obviously for himself as the star. Everything else in the film, as non-sensical as it may be, is there to support that image. Perhaps that's the problem. Keillor may be a genius in writing his variety radio show. But writing a movie about himself—a movie that breathes, relies on image, voice, setting, narrative arc demands entirely different skills. It also needs another perspective.

One could argue that Prairie Home Companion captures the nostalgia and harks back to older Hollywood films which were constructed around stage performances. I mean did we go to see Elvis Presley movies for the plot? But aside from the musical numbers, those movies were boring too. And so, I so humbly suggest, is Prairie Home Companion.

But don't listen to me. By all means, go out, pay for your ticket, see it, and make it a sensational hit.

This is Milos Stehlik for Chicago Public Radio's Worldview.

Worldview film contributor Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia.

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