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Movie Review

A Prairie Home Companion

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for risque humor

Reviewed by: Jonathan Rodriguez

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Comedy, Music
1 hr. 45 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
June 9, 2006 (wide)
Copyright, Picturehouse Films
Copyright, Picturehouse Films
Copyright, Picturehouse Films
Copyright, Picturehouse Films
Copyright, Picturehouse Films
Copyright, Picturehouse Films
Copyright, Picturehouse Films
Copyright, Picturehouse Films
Copyright, Picturehouse Films
Copyright, Picturehouse Films
Relevant Issues
Featuring: Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan
Director: Robert Altman
Producer: William Pohlad, John Penotti, Fisher Stevens
Distributor: Picturehouse Films

“Radio like you’ve never seen it before.”

Copyrighted, Picturehouse Films

In order to prepare to go see Robert Altman’s latest film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” I thought I would revisit one of his best films, “Gosford Park”. The reason I love “Gosford Park” so much is that the film takes a plethora of characters, gives them an interesting setting, but somehow keeps us at a distance. The film never involves us; we feel more like a fly on the wall at a big dinner party of self-absorbed rich people. But that is exactly what the film needed. We didn’t need to be involved to enjoy the film. Had we been given characters we could relate to, or empathize with, the film would have taken on an entirely different tone, and no doubt wouldn’t have worked as well. It was no doubt difficult for Altman to create an ensemble world where we weren’t supposed to connect with the characters or even like them for that matter, but I suppose that’s why he is considered one of our very best directors. I say all this to say that “A Prairie Home Companion” is even better than “Gosford Park”, but for the entirely opposite reason.

The minute the film starts, and as we are slowly introduced to all the colorful characters, we warm up to them; we like them instantaneously, without having much reason to. Maybe it’s the setting, or maybe it’s the actors playing them, but whatever the reason, Altman has worked his ensemble magic again.

“A Prairie Home Companion” doesn’t have much in terms of plot, which is also something we come to expect from Altman. There is, of course, a loose plot; one assembled primarily to give the numerous characters some reason to be together, but then lets them go from there.

The film opens on what appears to be the final night of “A Prairie Home Companion”, a long running radio variety show that also plays to a packed house nightly in their St. Paul theater. Before seeing the film, I was entirely unaware of the fact that this is an actual radio show, created by Garrison Keillor (who perfectly plays the show’s host GK and wrote the script), with fictional elements thrown into the movie to make it interesting. The radio show features a colorful cast of regulars including the Johnson sisters Yolanda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), singing trail hands Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), crooner L.Q. Jones (Chuck Akers), and others. We also get the backstage pass, where we meet the folks behind the scenes and get to watch the performers gear up for the final show.

The film is narrated by Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a bumbling, out of work private eye making bills meet as the show’s stage security guy. He becomes entranced by a mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen) wandering around backstage, and seems intent on wooing her despite the fact that he doesn’t know who she is, or why she is even back with the performers, and doesn’t seem to realize that it is his job to keep her from wandering around. Tommy Lee Jones plays the Axeman, the Texas businessman who bought the theater and plans on turning it into a parking lot. All of this is a setup that allows the actors to sort of roam free, without the constraints of a heavy plot, and gives us the chance to sit back and enjoy the show.

The film is rated PG-13, for what the MPAA calls “Risqué Humor,” and that is really the only way to describe it. There are numerous sexually-related jokes peppered throughout the film, as well as crude jokes near the end in Dusty and Lefty’s final song, appropriately titled “Bad Jokes.” There isn’t a whole lot in terms of language, although there is a few uses of God’s name in vain. There is little actual sexual content, although one of the characters is seen in his room, getting ready for a tryst with the show’s Lunch Lady. The major problem that I, and most people who will see the film, had is the inappropriate humor. The jokes will offend people, and should warrant some caution for those planning on seeing the film. Fortunately, most children and teenagers will have little interest in the film.

When all is said and done, I loved “A Prairie Home Companion.” It’s funny, at times hilarious, sweet without being condescending to it’s simple characters, and completely original. I am not the type who looks forward to the big budget releases, in fact I have still not seen “MI.3,” “The Da Vinci Code,” or any of the others. I look forward to originality and creativity, and that’s exactly what “A Prairie Home Companion” delivers.

Violence: Minor / Profanity: Moderate / Sex/Nudity: Moderate

Viewer Comments
Comments below:
Positive—I’ve heard that director Paul Thomas Anderson served as a sort of “assistant director” for Robert Altman on this film, and perhaps it is his influence, or maybe Altman’s getting nostalgic, I don’t know, but there was a real tenderness and a sweetness in this film that is a rarity in the majority of his work.

The best films are never about just one thing, and “A Prairie Home Companion” is a perfect example. You could look at it as a love letter to the radio program, or an ode to actors and the camaraderie among them, or as it was described as a fable about endings and beginnings. Or as another exercise in overheard casual conversations. Or as a story about how seemingly isolated pasts lead a group of people to a given place.

There were true, heartfelt connections between this group of people and I liked how they all shared their stories with each other. It’s fascinating to hear a person tell you about where they’ve come from. All of the acting is great, as expected—just look at the cast list. Garrison Keillor, too, fit in perfectly, and I loved the musical performances… alive and very well done. How about Meryl Streep. I guess that shouldn’t really surprise me, though.

The film’s plot is basically that this is the last show, because they’re being bought out by a Texas corporation. Why a Texas corporation would buy a Minnesota, I am not quite sure. Acting as our guide is Guy Noir (a character on the radio show, here used as a private eye turned security guard), played by Kevin Kline in a kind of amazing performance. He does the 40’s private eye thing, incorporates slapstick, does a lot of comedy and is just pitch perfect.

Lastly, there is a sort of Biblical undertone to the entire thing. Virginia Madsen plays, I think, an angel who comes to help the cast. But help them how? God doesn’t always give us what we want, but He does send something our way to ease the transitions into our disappointments. There are many Gospel songs, all well performed.

I loved everything about the film. I loved the characters, the humor, the atmosphere, the look, everything. There is a little bit of sexual humor, but even it is more tame than any romantic comedy out in the last ten years.

Robert Altman is one of my favorite directors, and the more I think about it, the more I think “A Prairie Home Companion” is one of his best films.
My Ratings: Good / 5
—Jason Eaken, age 22
Positive—This is a little masterpiece by the great Robert Altman. Its a deliriously whimsical, sometimes touching meditation on the good life that family, small town communities, and creative, imaginative people have to offer. It also makes subtle, wry comments about death, and about the cruel, coldness of corporate takeovers of family businesses. The performances are simply marvelous, from Garrison Keillor’s somewhat spaced out host, to Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as singing sisters. Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly are particularly good as Dusty and Lefty, singing cowboys from the range. For people who don’t like contemporary Hollywood, here is a masterpiece of old fashioned sweetness, but a film that never bogs down in treacle.
My Ratings: Excellent! / 5
—Peter Davis, age 36
Neutral—I have been listening to Prarie Home Companion on the radio for ten years now, and enjoy it when ever I do. That said, I was looking forward to this movie for quite a while now.

The singing was great, and the plot was interesting especially how the director Robert Altman did the different camera views and moved it quite fast paced.

The only part that was a little annoying was the “Bad Jokes” Song that the cowboys do toward the end. That probably could have been done more tastefully.

Another thing that some people may have a bit of a problem with is the suicide poem, which I personally thought was hilarious.

I would recommend this movie for any one looking to get a good laugh out of 1 hour and 45 minutes.
My Ratings: Average / 4
—Ellen, age 18
Neutral—I am a great fan of Garrison Keillor and his program “Prairie Home Companion”, so I really wanted to see this. I loved seeing how the radio program happens. But the plot around it was so silly and even unappealing. The movie is technically well-done, and the acting is good. But again, the plot is weak and goofy. The only lasting good impression for me was seeing the technique of producing a radio show and hearing Keillor’s wonderful voice and seeing his visage up close like that.
My Ratings: Offensive / 4
Halyna Barannik, age 60
Neutral—Pure formula (Movie about the Midwest) = A man whose consciousness was frozen in 1946 (Garrison) + the token inbred (Harrellson—can he play any other role?) + the suave retrotype (Kline) who’s able to score with the Shirley MacClaine wannabee + the teen in distress who’s too sophisticated for the Midwest (Lohan—can any young actress play any other role?) + a pregnant girl who doesn’t know who the father is + the evil Christian (Tommy Lee) whose demise leads to the happy ending. Tomlin and Streep do well, though. I call this “average” because, being from Iowa, I don’t know whether I’m supposed to like it or be offended by it.
My Ratings: Average / 3
—Steve, age 29
Neutral—Some things are better heard and not seen. I have been a fan of the PHC broadcast for years and was looking forward to this film. Although I can’t fault the acting, I found it just plain boring. I know, I never accept that answer from my teenagers, but, that’s what is was for me. The plot was forced in my opinion. Although, the characters do seem to have a genuine passion for what they are doing, and for one another, which was most likely the only redeeming quality about the picture. To take something real and turn it fictional doesn’t work for me in this instance. I would have much preferred to simply watch a taping of the actual PHC broadcast. For me, the in and out, going from the ridiculous plot back to the show and then back again was difficult. Like most, I feel that actually sitting down to watch a movie is a valuable investment of time. This movie, is simply not worth the investment.
My Ratings: Average / 3
—JT, age 41
Negative—My husband and I do not attend very many movies, but because we had heard the program on PBS a few times we thought we would try it. The music was good and so we stayed longer than we should have. I think we saw about two thirds of the movie. There were several sexual innuendos and some bathroom humor in the first part, but when the two cowboy singers started telling dirty jokes we had to leave. We were very disappointed. If we had paid for our tickets, we would have asked for our money back.
My Ratings: Offensive / 3
—C.A. Murphy, age 68
Comments from young people
Positive—An excellent film based on an actual radio show. I would seriously look for this film when the Oscars come around. The really only objectionable content is the suggestive humor, and the very mild language. Some people might also find the presentation of death and some of the discussions surrounding it disturbing.
My Ratings: Average / 5
—Jonathan, age 15
Positive—“A Prarie Home Companion” is a movie that is abstract and so completely different from anything else out there today that you have to watch it at home so you can pause it every few minutes to understand it. I had never heard of this movie until a few friends of mine talked about it after it came out on video, and I decided to rent it with absolutely no idea of what to expect. I was wonderfully surprised when only fifteen minutes through I knew I loved it. I loved the characters from their first appearances and already felt for them in a way that few directors can manage to exact out of me. The characters were amazing, and it is obvious that the actors had a wonderful time making the movie, which is something that is always a plus for me. The set was wonderfully set up and in my opinion rather friendly. The only negative aspect to this movie is the crude jokes or “Risque Humour” as it is rated for. The only part I found myself wincing at was near the end when the cowboys come up and sing “Bad Jokes.” Though there were a few occasional, truly humorous things in their song, the vast majority was crude and/or sexual. If it weren’t for that, this movie would have been perfect, and despite that I love it. I absolutely recommend this movie to anyone and hope you have a good time.
My Ratings: Average / 5
—Chris, age 16