Streep, Keillor anchor fictional character study
Cassie Belek | Tuesday, October 24, 2006
With a Midwestern comfort, a celebration of values and a salute to the nostalgia of radio variety shows, “A Prairie Home Companion” is one of those magical character-driven films blessed with a dream cast that makes viewers forget there’s not much of a plot.
The film centers around the final episode of radio show “A Prairie Home Companion” hosted by Garrison Keillor. In reality, the show continues to air live every Saturday, but in the film, it is being unplugged by a corporate big wig later that evening. The narrative is found within the relationships between the characters – individuals who have formed a family that is now being torn apart.
It may be odd that Keiller, who wrote “Prairie Home,” imagined the demise of his own show while continuing its weekly radio broadcasts, but the film reflects a very real fear – big business ultimately wins and the little guy must move on.
The cast itself speaks for the film – Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly and Maya Rudolph. The spectacular ensemble cast is directed by the award-winning hand of Robert Altman, who, using one of his signature techniques, allows the cast to improvise and breathlessly talk over each other.
The warmth and sweetness of “Prairie Home” comes alive during musical numbers. The camera gravitates toward the luminous Streep, who employs the same musical technique as Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall” – cover up a weak voice with pure emotion and dazzle them all.
All the actors do their own singing – good or bad. Lily Tomlin’s deep and jarring singing voice may not be particularly pleasant to listen to, but the joy of watching her on-screen interaction with Streep is worth any auditory trauma received.
The film belongs to Streep and Keillor, but other cast members have their moments to shine as well. Harrelson and Reilly portray two country singing cowboys with a penchant to sing inappropriate songs. Kline plays a quirky private eye turned security guard named Guy Noir who narrates his life as if he were in film noir. Madsen portrays a beautiful Angel of Death who offers comfort to the “Prairie Home” family, even though her presence foreshadows tragedy.
The weakest performance comes from Lohan, who demonstrates acting chops but is the only actor not to get lost in her character. Perhaps her tabloid exposure is to blame, but Lohan will have to work hard and keep a low profile if she wants to take more stabs at playing characters truly successfully – something that has already proved challenging after her embarrassing public scolding by “Georgia Rule” studio executive James G. Robinson.
However, the ability of the rest of the actors to completely immerse themselves into their characters makes us forget that they are acting at all. The ensemble’s genuine performances are exposed through Altman’s genius.
The DVD lacks any extensive special features. Included on it is commentary by Altman and Kline, a featurette and extending musical scenes.
“A Prairie Home Companion” is able to stand on its own as a brilliant film without employing any extra gimmicks. It features one of the better ensemble casts of the year and it uncovers a little slice of American popular culture that is new to many. The film is enjoyable even if a person is not familiar with the weekly radio show. It radiates warmth and togetherness and leaves us with just a taste of the glory days of radio.