3 stars (out of four)
Through "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" wonders and "O.C. and Stiggs" misfires and plenty in between, Robert Altman keeps coming back to the ever-shifting dynamics of family. The theme suits his camera eye. His slippery way of framing and then reframing any given shot, depending on which way the emotional winds are blowing and who's catching his eye, captures a sense of ensemble and, at the same time, an ensemble dissolving into individual puzzle pieces--outsiders all, everybody doing their own thing.
The thing this time is a radio show. Altman, now 81, shot "A Prairie Home Companion" on location last summer in and around the Fitzgerald Theater, the real home of the real "Prairie Home," in downtown St. Paul. To the extent all Altman films are about biological or makeshift clans muddling through while the band plays on, this one's an Altman film up and down, even though it's a Garrison Keillor project up, down and sideways.
Like his recent, elegant dance film "The Company," "A Prairie Home Companion" will appeal especially to those who are not story-dependent. Altman's sidewinding tribute to a surprisingly hardy 32-year-old public radio phenomenon is like a 105-minute putter in the garden, with a few songs and some jokes. It's nice. If the on-air "Prairie Home" charm has been made more conventional to fit the screen, Altman's cast--ranging from Meryl Streep to Kevin Kline to Keillor's longtime and invaluable sound effects ace, Tom Keith--adds its own wrinkles.
The premise, slight in the extreme, finds the long-running radio variety program on the air "since Jesus was in 3rd grade" broadcasting its farewell episode. The Fitzgerald has been bought out by a Texas media conglomerate (Tommy Lee Jones plays the ax-man) and is scheduled for demolition. Meantime there's a last show to get through.
Streep and Lily Tomlin play Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, a singing-sisters act from Oshkosh, Wis.; once upon a time Streep's character and G.K. had an affair. Lindsay Lohan portrays Yolanda's death-obsessed, Kurt Cobain-worshipping daughter, a budding poet and raging grump. Keillor's screenplay, based on an idea he cooked up with longtime collaborator Ken LaZebnik, tries to extract a climax out of Lohan's "42nd Street"-style finale, wherein she wows the crowd with "Frankie and Johnny" in a voice you'd have to describe as "just all right." Faring better are Streep and Tomlin, who vocalize throughout to better advantage. Shooting in sharp high-definition video, then transferred to 35 mm, Altman and cinematographer Ed Lachman keep the music front and center.
Some of the radio show's recurring characters share the limelight. Kline plays gumshoe Guy Noir, wittily downgraded to security guard with airs for the movie. He matches up stylishly with Virginia Madsen as an Angel of Death in a white trench coat. As singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly amble their way through a "Bad Jokes" guitar-pickin' showcase. (I have to admit, I cringed during this one--not because of the performers, but because of the mold on the jokes.)
There's an added payoff to this easygoing film if you're a longtime follower of the radio show. "Prairie Home" company regulars Keith, Sue Scott and Tim Russell enjoy some screen time. Scott plays the makeup lady, lamenting the show's demise. The plot has another cast member drop dead backstage. Keillor, who doesn't appear in this movie so much as appear to be trying to get out of it, declines the opportunity to mention this demise (or the show's) during the final broadcast. "I don't do eulogies," he says, in that beautiful voice of his, the one that has seen him through terrific monologues and lesser ones. (The movie, for the record, has no "News From Lake Wobegon" segment.)
I don't know how this film will play to those new to the show or those disinclined toward Keillor. You have to like lines like this one from G.K.: "We're not a beach people. We are a dark people who believe it could be worse, and are waiting for it."
Insurance matters required Altman to hire a backup director for "Prairie Home" in the event, as he says, he "croaked" on the set. Paul Thomas Anderson helped out; Altman did not, in fact, croak. The movie has a wry, nose-thumbing way of acknowledging the end of the line. In reality the show's not there yet. Neither is Altman.
'A Prairie Home Companion'
Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Garrison Keillor; cinematography by Ed Lachman; edited by Jacob Craycroft; production design by Dina Goldman; music arranged by Richard Dworsky; produced by David Levy, Tony Judge, Joshua Astrachan, Wren Arthur and Altman. A Picturehouse release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for risque humor).
G.K. - Garrison Keillor
Yolanda Johnson - Meryl Streep
Rhonda Johnson - Lily Tomlin
Guy Noir - Kevin Kline
Dusty - Woody Harrelson
Lefty - John C. Reilly
Lola Johnson - Lindsay Lohan
Dangerous Woman - Virginia MadsenCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times