A ‘Companion’ From Altman

There is a lot of highbrow boomer-generation nonsense out there for which I have no patience and generally no interest, let alone praise. The New Yorker cartoons are up there on that list. So is not knowing how to use the Internet. But I think the number one for the last decade has been Garrison Keilor and ‘A Prairie Home Companion.’
Now I haven’t exactly ever given this guy a chance by listening to or reading anything that he has done. All I know is, my parents are way too enthusiastic about it and it sounds stupid.
The only way to get me involved in a folksy, country-music-based, too-much-story-telling radio show, would be to slap on some 81-year-old World War II generation talent, like acclaimed director Robert Altman and maybe throw in a skinny, dark-rooted blonde Lindsay Lohan in there.
Well, they got me with Altman’s latest film, unattractively titled ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ written by Garrison Keillor, who also starred in the film with an all-star cast, including Lohan, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Kevin Kline and Tommy Lee Jones.
This is 81-year-old Altman’s 41st film. It is an amazing accomplishment that at his age he can still make high-quality films. The studio was concerned, however, and for insurance purposes had director Paul Thomas Anderson on stand-by to take over if Altman’s health failed.
The director, famous for films such as ‘M*A*S*H,’ ‘Nashville’ and ‘Gosford Park,’ was awarded this year with the Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievement. Despite years of critical acclaim the director has never received an academy award. He famously noted in his speech that he had the heart of a young girl, referring to his not-often-publicized heart transplant.
‘A Prairie Home Companion’ chronicles the last night of a 30-year running live radio show, hosted by Keillor. The old Fitzgerald theatre in St. Paul, Minn., which is where the actual radio show is taped has been sold to Jones, who plans to level it for a parking lot.
The film opens with Guy Noir played by Kline, a 1940s-style private investigator who works as head security for the show. As a popular character on Keillor’s real show, Noir’s opening in the film incited immediate roaring and laughter from most of the audience members, leaving certain unfamiliar viewers in the dark.
The news saddens the players in the show, but doesn’t deter them much from putting on their last hurrah, which includes storytelling by Keillor and a good amount of musical numbers by Harrelson and Reilly, who play ranch hands Lefty and Dusty, and Streep and Tomlin, who play singing sisters.
Surprisingly enough, Keillor steals the show as the deadpan host who loves to tell stories, especially the nine different versions of how he got into radio. Keillor, who often famously mentions that he has a face for radio, is indeed not the most attractive of men, but is nonetheless by far the most entertaining character. Although he may be regionally and generationally foreign to some members, being older and distinctly midwestern. His dry wit is funny enough to break most boundaries.
Kline’s Guy Noir is another key character, mixing film-noir cool with some blundering goofiness. Noir spends most of the movie obsessing about Virginia Madsen, who plays an angel, the oddest and most metaphysical and oddest part of the film.
Some of the best scenes are the backstage banter between the radio show players. Whether it is Garrison telling one of the stories about how he got into radio or Lefty and Dusty making fun of each other, it is this behind-the-curtains dialogue, in that rapid-fire, improv-sounding Altman style, that proves to be the most interesting.
Streep and Tomlin’s backstage stories are also very entertaining. The generation gap between the two sisters and Lohan prove to be very comedic, especially when comparing Streep and Tomlin’s midwestern attitudes with Lohan’s suicidal tendencies.
Despite high hopes, Lohan’s first dramatic role proves to be disappointing. Her part isn’t very big, but when she is on screen, her scenes are either stolen by older, more experienced actors, or they are just annoying. Lohan’s final scene, in which she finally sings on the radio show, proves to be very anticlimactic, as she is only slightly better at singing than she is at acting, in this movie, at least.
Companion is no classic, but despite dragging on a bit too long, it is ultimately a good and entertaining film. Boomer fans will doubtlessly drool over Keillor and roar with laughter. But luckily for the film, it is funny and well-crafted enough to entice younger audiences, if they are willing to give Keillor a chance.