Despite politics I generally despise, I occasionally enjoy listening to A Prairie Home Companion on national public radio. Being a music fan and a film buff, I expected something with the feeling of the radio show on screen in the movie. Alas, I was disappointed.
For one thing, the film was directed by Robert Altman who turned out occasional flashes of cinematic brilliance (Gosford Park), but whose work otherwise seems primarily self-indulgent and under-edited.
Early in his career, Altman directed episodes of Bonanza and several other 1950s television series. His first real critical acclaim came with his feature film of M*A*S*H, and he never approved of the way the bite was taken out of his political statement by the tv series that followed.
I adored Gosford Park, but this was perhaps better-than-typical Altman fare because he was working with a classically trained cast of English actors. Cookie's Fortune was also a delight and starred one of the all-time screen greats, Patricia Neal, as well as terminally cute Liv Tyler.
The style of his films tends to be very loose with script, with bloated super-ego actors improvising and generally in love with the sound of their own voices. The result is often muddled and directionless, in my opinion. Still, Altman has been one of the most revered directors of the twentieth century, particularly amongst the Hollywood set, and huge film stars would work for union pay scale simply to be included in his films. It's all a bit of log-rolling, if you ask me.
So, in the form of A Prairie Home Companion, here was an opportunity to showcase a weekly radio program populated with a permanent cast of singer/actors, musicians and special-effects people who are experts at their craft. Rather, however, than focus on the performances and the quirky corn-pone charm of the show as it exists, the film instead focused on the navel-gazing of ditzy songstress Meryl Streep, her sister Lily Tomlin and Streep's daughter played by Lindsay Lohan.
The great revolving schticks of APHC radio show were eschewed in favor of the rambling of the big-name stars of the film, which is a pity. Gone were the Powdered Milk and Ketchup songs. In was La Lohan's crappily warbled rendition of Frankie & Johnnie. Out was what should have been a focus on the brilliant sound effects man Tom Keith, and in was a little too much face time with Woody Harrelson. Ew.
Ironically, Garrison Keillor shared writing credits on this film, and manages to make himself seem ponderous and even tedious, when in fact, the APHC has always shown him to be rather clever. Pity. Add to that his made-for-radio countenance, and GK comes off looking like Michael Moore's slightly-more-fortunate-looking brother.
Anyway, you'll rarely see or hear me pan a film. I try to take them on their own merits, but in truth, when there is an established history behind a new film, the film makers should strive in some way to at least match the prior undertakings in terms of quality and pure entertainment value. On a scale of one to ten, I'd give this about a 3. Seriously.
I consider myself open-minded and able to appreciate even the outrageously bad film, if done with a point of view and sense of humor. Frankenhooker? Loved it. Basket Case II and Killer Klowns from Outer Space? Yes, I saw them in the theater. Rarely have I felt angry at myself for wasting time watching a stinker of a film, but this was one of those occasions.
Learn from my mistake and avoid this one.