My mother has been a fan of Garrison Keillor's radio program A Prairie Home Companion for over 25 years. Every Sunday morning Keillor would tell a tale from the fictional town of Lake Woebegone in that perfect, distinct voice of his as we sat around the kitchen table eating breakfast and reading through the Sunday newspaper.
"I appreciate the wit and humor of Garrison Keillor as well as the writing and the people that do the skits," she said. "They're a wonderful mix of smart, funny, at times risqué humor that just is a very relaxing two hours to listen to and hear the musical acts... I think of the show as kind of a national treasure. It offers so much and you just don't have shows that are anything like it at all. And there's something for everybody on it."
A Prairie Home Companion is a radio variety show that has been on the air since 1974. It was created by and principally stars Keillor. Every show includes humorous monologues, skits, storytelling, fake advertisements, messages from audience members to family and friends, and folk music. It runs for two hours on Saturdays at 5 p.m. Central Time. A repeat runs on Sunday mornings.
With every adaptation there is a certain degree of apprehension regarding whether or not the magic that made the original art so special can be reproduced into a whole new medium. The situation can be especially nervous for filmmakers when they are dealing with a property like A Prairie Home Companion that has such a dedicated fan base. That devoted following that tunes in to Keillor and company for two hours every week can put their worries to bed. It's difficult to conceive of a fan of the radio program disliking the film. (If anyone who loves the show disliked the movie then please e-mail me - mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be very interested in hearing how they screwed up.)
There are several reasons that account for the success of the adaptation. First is that as far as adaptations go, the translation from radio variety show to feature film is not nearly as drastic a change as going from book to movie or play to movie. The film is primarily a fictionalized recording of one of the performances of A Prairie Home Companion. Most of the film is the same thing an audience member sitting in the Fitzgerald Theater would see. Also interspersed throughout are the backstage happenings. As performers prepare themselves they reminisce and lament that this will be their final show - the theater will soon be demolished to make way for, of all things, a parking lot. Throughout the film death looms - both figuratively and literally.
The second primary reason for the film's success is who's behind it. Not only does Keillor play himself, but he also wrote the screenplay. The film has the ideal director. Who is the best person to make a movie steeped in Americana, featuring a large, ensemble cast? Acclaimed, legendary director Robert Altman fits the bill. Also of note and importance is the film's cinematographer, the Oscar-nominated Ed Lachman. Lachman's rich, elegant visual style can be seen in such films as Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven," Stephen Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich," Larry Clark's ultra-controversial "Ken Park," and Sophia Coppola's directorial debut "The Virgin Suicides."
The film also possesses a cast to make one salivate: Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph (one of the few remaining strong performers on Saturday Night Live,) Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, and, of course, Keillor as a version of himself. Not too shabby. Even better, though, is the fantastic chemistry between cast members. Of particular note are Harrelson and Reilly paired together as cowboy singers and Streep and Tomlin as the remaining sisters in what was once a five member act. Kline is also in rare form as Guy Noir, one of Keillor's regular characters who is in charge of security.
Something else needs to be mentioned: a word about the letter grade for "A Prairie Home Companion." There are many different schools of thought regarding how one should critique a film or write a review. On the one hand there's the subjective view focusing on the individual's film-going experience: "If I like the movie then it's a good movie." Or one could take a more objective stance: "There are certain qualities that make for a good movie. Whether or not I like the film is irrelevant. What's important is how well the film performs in various categories. How is the acting? Cinematography? Dialogue? Pacing? Etc." In my reviews I try to embrace both ideas and walk the tightrope between them. Focusing exclusively on one or the other leads to problems. With the subjective approach, my review is primarily of use only to those whose tastes approximate mine. It's also arrogant and ignorant to think that a movie is only good if you like it. With the objective approach, where one ignores personal preferences and tastes, reviews tend to be fairly dry analyses that fail to form a full picture of the film. Understanding of the personal experience of a film provides important information that cannot necessarily be gleaned by academic critiques of technical performances.
So how is this relevant to "A Prairie Home Companion"? For whatever reason - I wish I knew what it was - I do not really care for Robert Altman movies. I've seen several and they just do not work very well for me. I've seen "The Player" and "Gosford Park" and now "A Prairie Home Companion." In all three cases I was able to realize that these were great films made by an important filmmaker. But they just did not reach into me and exhilarate me. They did not shake me up and impress me. And that's my fault. It's my own personal cinematic deficiency. There are other directors that fall into this category. Ridley Scott ("Blade Runner," "Gladiator," "Hannibal") and Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums") are the two others for me.
I liked "A Prairie Home Companion." It's a fun, pleasant film. But it was not a four star film experience. (That's what Roger Ebert gave it.) I can understand how it would be and I wish that it had been for me.
Personal taste is a really weird thing. It does not make logical sense. Why do you like something? You just do. What's important, though, is to understand that personal taste is not something in which one should put that much stock. Just because you do not like something it does not mean that it is universally "bad."
And besides, with a film like "A Prairie Home Companion," there is so much stuff going on that just about everyone is bound to find something that they enjoy.