Garrison Keillor as G.K.
Kevin Kline as Guy Noir
Meryl Streep as Yolanda Johnson
Lily Tomlin as Rhonda Johnson
Lindsay Lohan as Lola Johnson
Virginia Madsen as Dangerous Woman
Woody Harrelson as Dusty
John C. Reilly as Lefty
Tommy Lee Jones as Axeman
Maya Rudolph as Molly
Marylouise Burke as Lunch Lady
L.Q. Jones as Chuck Akers
Sue Scott as Donna
Tim Russell as Al
Tom Keith as Sound Effects Man
Directed by Robert Altman
Garrison Keillor’s quirky sense of humor and musical stylings are showcased in a way that makes it immediately apparent why his show has had such a diehard following for so many years.
GK (Garrison Keillor) hosts the very last live broadcast of his long-running radio show “A Prairie Home Companion,” after the show’s home, the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, is bought by an investor who plans to tear it down. Joining him for the last show are the Johnson Sisters (Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin), the Old Trailhands (Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly) and more, but the real story is going on behind the scenes as head of security Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) deals with a mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen) hanging around backstage.
If you’re over a certain age, you’re sure to have heard of Garrison Keillor and/or his long-running public radio variety show “A Prairie Home Companion,” but who knows how many people interested in seeing the latest movie from filmmaking legend Robert Altman ever actually listened to it? I sure haven’t, though I’ve had a few friends over the years who were diehard fans.
Essentially, it’s a musical-comedy variety show performed live in front of an audience and broadcast on public radio every Saturday night. Most of the show’s charm comes from the personality of its host, whose Midwestern humor and deadpan delivery, whether introducing guests or singing one of the show’s mock jingles for non-existent products, is quite addictive.
Altman’s movie takes a typical broadcast, fictionally the last show ever, and creates a complex story involving various performers and behind-the-scenes goings-on. Acting as narrator and the storytelling glue that holds it all together is Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, the Fitzgerald’s head of security who is dealing with a mysterious woman in white, played by sexy Virginia Madsen, and the sudden death of one of the performers. Kline is in fine form both with his clever delivery of Guy’s quips, usually performed by Keillor on the show, but also adding a surprising amount of physical and slapstick humor. There’s no question that most of the movie’s laughs come from Kline.
That’s not to take anything away from the force–for the lack of a better word–that is Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, who steal many scenes as the Johnson Sisters, the remaining half of a singing sister group, kibbitzing merrily about this or that, often oblivious about everything that’s going on around them. Even Lindsay Lohan shows a bit of much-needed range as Streep’s moody daughter, who would prefer to write poems about suicide than have anything to do with the show. Eventually, she does perform a show-stopping rendition of “Frankie & Johnny” before the curtains are brought down for the last time.
Fans of Robert Altman probably won’t be too surprised by the way he wrangles this impressive ensemble cast and keeps things moving with the cameras going upstairs, downstairs and everywhere else in the theatre to keep a track of all the characters and subplots in a similar way as he did in both “Gosford Park” and “The Player.”
Although the offstage antics certainly are fun, the real joy of this movie comes from the performances by Keillor and his guests of country-folk classics and mock jingles, accompanied by the house band, the Guys All-Star Shoe Band. Streep and Tomlin both have some fun numbers, while Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as fictional singing cowboys, the Old Trailhands, perform a couple of risqué ditties much to the aggravation of the show’s producer. Sound effects man Tom Keith almost steals the movie from under all of the better-known stars with a bit in which he’s put through his paces by Streep’s character.
It’s not all great, though, as some of the jokes are just too self-reverential and quirky, likely targeted only to fans of the show. Also, for whatever reason, Keillor and/or Altman felt the need to add a bit of flatulence for easy laughs amidst the more cerebral humor. There are also the bits that drag on far beyond their welcome and a needless epilogue that takes away from the emotion of discovering this wonderful show, only to watch it come to an end.
The Bottom Line:
If you’re a fan of Garrison Keillor’s show, you’ll probably get a lot of the jokes and references immediately. If not, Altman’s movie is a great way to discover what so many diehard fans have known for years and it’s hard not to get slightly teary eyed by the thought of it ending.