- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

Who better to translate Garrison Keillor’s beloved “A Prairie Home Companion,” with all its rootsy characters and folksy music, to the big screen than “Nashville’s” Robert Altman?

The finished product confirms many of our hopes even while falling short of what seemed — at least on paper — like a perfect match.

At 81, the director can still deftly juggle a large and varied cast. Yet no matter how many individual scenes his cast nails, he can’t deliver a single unified narrative that compels sustained attention.

Instead we have a half dozen or so, none of which Mr. Altman and screenwriter Mr. Keillor show much interest in.

As we begin, it’s another evening of homespun humor and tunes at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., but something isn’t quite right. A corporate type from Texas — his home state is no accident given Mr. Keillor’s political sensibility — is coming to watch the live radio show personally. His company has bought the theater right out from under the “Prairie,” meaning tonight’s performance will be the last of its kind.

As if that weren’t enough to spook the crew, a mysterious backstage presence (Virginia Madsen) haunts the broadcast, and a longtime member of the cast won’t live to see the grand finale.

The show must go on, particularly for Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), who live for the kind of low-key harmonizing the radio show specializes in.

And so, in turn, does the film.

“Companion” is an unadulterated joy so long as the music and jokes are center stage. Comic cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) provide the bawdy bits, the naughtiest of which only a curmudgeon could squawk about, and Miss Streep reminds us she sings nearly as well as she acts — no small praise.

Much has been printed about Lindsay Lohan’s role here, her first time working in the big leagues. Her character, Yolanda’s daughter, is your typical depressive teen who can belt out a tune if given half the chance. Her suicidal poetry readings are as sketchily assembled as her character, and it’s all too easy to ignore her modest story arc.

Mr. Keillor’s presence here, essentially playing himself, is the oddity in the bunch. He’s stiff and unpolished, yet he lumbers through the movie with so little pretension his lack of craft is moot.

The “Prairie” creator, or GK as the movie calls him, won’t stand for sappy goodbyes. He’d rather the show go on as usual without any maudlin tributes. He sticks to his guns even when a beloved member of the crew dies mid-show. That lack of sentimentality seeps from the screen into audience members, who will strain to care much for any of the “Prairie” regulars.

What the director never tires of highlighting is his affection for radio variety shows, a format all but extinct today.

“A Prairie Home Companion” will make viewers wish the genre a speedy comeback, even if we don’t much care for the stars who state its case.

***

TITLE: “A Prairie Home Companion”

RATING: PG-13 (Some risque humor)

CREDITS: Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Garrison Keillor from a story by Mr. Keillor and Ken LaZebnik.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEB SITE: www.aprairiehomecompanionmovie.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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