Release Date:  June 9, 2006 (wide)
Rating:  PG-13 (risque humor)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  105 min.
Director:  Robert Altman
Actors: Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, Tommy Lee Jones, L.Q. Jones

Years ago, "A Prairie Home Companion" cultivated an audience on public radio by recreating what radio used to be – live broadcasts anchored by storytelling, music, mystery and humor, with sound effects that left much to the imagination.

For today’s "Companion" fans who weren’t weaned on live radio, the program represents something else – a point of contrast to what radio has become. The broadcast is not loud, brash or in-your-face. Not controversial but genial, not adrenaline-fueled but laid back. And, although peppered with product announcements and sponsorships, it retains an independent spirit. It is not overtly corporate.

The warmth of the radio broadcast translates to the new film version of "A Prairie Home Companion," which bucks the conventions of “corporate” cinema. The storyline is loose, the acting often improvised and the soundtrack cacophonous only when it features the trademark overlapping dialogue of its director, Robert Altman. The film is not a breakthrough for Altman, but – like its radio counterpart – what "A Prairie Home Companion" lacks in innovation it makes up for in execution.

Garrison Keillor’s screenplay opens with a scan of a local radio dial in St. Paul, Minn., where "Companion" is set. Traffic on the 5’s, baseball, preaching: It’s what you’ll find on the radio dial in most any town, but these airwaves include a long-running program, "A Prairie Home Companion," recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater. It’s been on the air “since Jesus was in the third grade,” narrator (and radio-show security guard) Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) tells us, but a corporate bad guy (Tommy Lee Jones) plans to bring the show to an end after the evening’s broadcast. Goodbye tradition, goodbye old-time humor, goodbye gainful employment for Guy Noir and the show’s regulars. Hello parking lot.

The melancholy overtone of the film increases as word spreads from one performer to another that the night’s broadcast will be their last. But the show must go on, and the backstage primping, pining and reminiscing constitute the bulk of the film.

We meet a singing sister duo, Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), along with Yolanda’s troubled daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan); two guitar-playing cowboys, Lefty and Dusty (John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson); a senior show performer (L.Q. Jones); and a striking, mysterious woman in a white trench coat (Virginia Madsen), sent to the studio on a mission not immediately revealed.

Overseeing the cast is the show’s emcee, G.K. (Keillor), who repeats the same stories to the crew and shows other signs of increasing age – until the curtain goes up, and he masterfully leads the team through the ups and downs of one last live broadcast.

The film has several enjoyable stretches, with memorable performances from Kline, Streep and Madsen. Although it’s never deeply absorbing, Companion has some beautiful, touching moments. It is suffused with a mainline religious sensibility – stoic but respectful toward religious traditions, although explicit expressions of abiding faith are relegated mostly to a few deeply affecting musical numbers. However, some of the singers leave any heartfelt convictions on stage, coming across as shallow or simply cruel at other times.

The exception is Madsen’s mysterious character, billed in the credits as the “dangerous woman.” Her slowly revealed identity allows her to speak more reverently about the spiritual. These assertions don’t stand up to close biblical scrutiny, but the underlying impulse often is admirable and produces several moving moments.

"A Prairie Home Companion" balances nostalgia with an inexorable sense of impending mortality for the beloved performers and for the show itself. Director Altman, now in his 80s and reportedly frail during filming, seems to acknowledge that it’s coming for him as well, and for audiences preferring character-driven dramas that don’t insult their intelligence.

If nothing else, "A Prairie Home Companion" reminds us that the hour is late, and films like this one far too few. It’s not anywhere close to perfect, but, like its radio counterpart, it has its pleasures.

AUDIENCE: Teens and up.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; several profanities; the song “Bad Jokes” strings together a series of crude jokes; numerous double-entendres.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Guy Noir spikes his coffee, drinks from a flask and rolls cigarettes.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Two backstage performers carry on a sexual relationship. Guy Noir ogles a female character and describes, in revealing voiceover, her outfit and looks; a pregnant woman will soon be a single mom.
  • Violence:  A woman recounts a sudden, tragic death.
  • Suicide:  One character is obsessed with suicide.
  • Religion:  An angel speaks about the “fullness of time in the Spirit” and appears to several cast members, but her underlying theology is problematic; the Johnson sisters speak derisively of “Christian audiences” but also sing traditional hymns with conviction; a character jokes about how coffee is necessary to stay awake during a sermon.