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June 20, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion

The Rifle Range
Altman Shoots Himself In The Foot With Garrison Keilor’s Help
By Cole Smithey


Consummate blowhard radio personality Garrison Keillor sees his self-penned script fantasy about the final installment of his wispy radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" realized by Robert Altman. Just as the word "prairie" connotes Anglo pretension, Altman’s movie bounces between phony characters going through inflated backstage preparations before stepping onto Keillor’s stage at the Fitzgerald Theater to perform songs before a live audience marveling at Keillor’s billowy enunciation of arcane references like "rhubarb pie." Tommy Lee Jones plays "The Axeman," a Texas real estate mogul anxious to raze the Midwest theater.

Audiences outside of Garrison Keillor’s cult fan base will likely miss the point of Altman’s film, which values the anachronistic and arcane for its own sake. Keillor developed the vignette-based story with television writer Ken LaZebnik ("Touched By An Angel"). Kevin Kline’s ill-defined character Guy Noir announces the tonal inconsistencies that plague the film from his first scene where the character seems like a Broadway actor that stepped into the wrong studio. Guy Noir is a dilettante private investigator distracted from his part-time backstage doorkeeper narration duties by a "mysterious" blonde femme fatale (played by Virginia Madsen) that wafts around inside the theater during the performance. Madsen’s character, called only "Dangerous Woman," recurs throughout the story as a visual distraction seemingly present for the limited purpose of adding feminine color to the visual scope of the movie.

Counterfeit cowboy troubadours Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) exchange a constant stream of amiable barbs that prepare the audience for the bawdy nature of the goofy songs they eventually perform onstage. During the course of the story the duo provides the film with its deepest level of entertainment via their shameless affinity for all things course and crude.

Meryl Streep and Lilly Tomlin furnish the film’s strongest character threads as country singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson. But, as actresses, they suffer the most humiliation in creating characters that fall flat as pancakes due to the banal nature of the material.


The aging Robert Altman utilized the assistance of director P.T. Anderson ("Magnolia") in creating what he envisioned to be a theatrical milieu film similar in execution to his captivating last film "The Company," about the intimate province of a New York dance company. Nonetheless, the substance here never meshes with Altman’s signature impromptu form, and the audience is left to ponder the fiction of the material more than the interconnectivity of its characters. Absent too, is the frisky narrative rhythm of Altman’s Hollywood centric "The Player" or musically inclined "Kansas City."

"A Prairie Home Companion" is a cringe-worthy Robert Altman movie because it lacks all traces of the director’s former glory. You could blame Garrison Keillor but that would be giving him too much credit.

Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)


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