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Passing the Time: Review of A Prairie Home Companion

I’m a big fan of movies that drop you into a situation and force you to catch up on your own. Audiences are much smarter than most movies give them credit for. People have the capacity to figure things out.

A Prairie Home Companion jumps right into its behind-the scenes look at the famous radio program from which the film’s title is derived. If, like me, you didn’t know much about the radio show before watching the movie, you’re sort of left in the dust when the film begins. Most of this film takes place in dressing rooms and backstage preparations. People pass in and out as the fictional final show of A Prairie Home Companion commences. However, as you begin to catch up, you realize the film is not just focusing on the end of a radio program but the passing of time in life.


The cast of this film is absolutely fantastic, and the acting performances alone make the film worth watching. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are particularly noteworthy as sister singing duo Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson. They spend most of the film either singing together on stage or talking in their dressing room. I spent most of the film wishing for the next scene where they were together. I could watch these two actresses for hours. There’s a reason they are legends.

Lindsay Lohan plays Yolanda’s daughter Lola Johnson. Given her fall from grace just a few short years after this film was released, Lohan’s star has faded considerably. But this film showcases her considerable talent as an actress. She more than holds her own amid the myriad talent around her.

The basic plot of the film is that A Prairie Home Companion has reached its final show. The troupe is trying to figure out how best to ride off into the sunset. Garrison Keillor – the real-life host of the famous radio show – wrote and starred in this film, giving it a key sense of verisimilitude. Characters move in and out of the narrative as the show moves on. This transience makes us feel like we are actually backstage with performers passing us by at every moment.

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The supporting cast includes such incredible talent as Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Maya Rudolph and Virginia Madsen. All of them pass through the film almost like the wind. The fact that the film doesn’t fall apart is a testament to its director – the legendary Robert Altman.

Altman handles all the various parts with masterful care. This film is never boring, and it very well could be. The lack of a cohesive storyline could wear out its welcome fast, but Altman infuses each scene with enough flair to keep your attention. And the performances hold you there.

While the film is never boring, I did find myself wondering about where it was going. The time passes and the scenes move and…that’s about it. We’re watching these characters put on a show, and then it’s over. There’s a palpable sense of passing time and the transition of life. But I never felt that film carried these threads through to their ends. I felt left in the middle of something. Maybe I am still catching up.

I also feel compelled to note that Garrison Keillor’s involvement and the entire legacy of A Prairie Home Companion itself is now affected by accusations of sexual harassment against Keillor that surfaced last year. I was aware of these allegations when I watched the film, and some of the jokes and dressing room scenes made me pause in light of them. That’s not to say that anything improper is explicitly depicted in the film. But Keillor is such an integral part of the real-life show as well as this film that it is impossible not to wonder about who this man really is.


All in all, this is a film that I would recommend for its cast and its talented direction. Time moves on for all of us. In many ways, we’re simply along for the ride.


One Comment

  1. […] Always a filmmaker to break away from the more conventional fare, Altman’s choice to deliver a behind-the-scenes look at a fading radio program is certainly an odd one. While the setting lends itself to a whole host of outlandish narrative opportunities, Altman and writer Garrison Keillor keep things decidedly simple yet entirely unfettered. Long stretches of improvised conversation ultimately overstay their welcome, making for a somewhat frustrating experience. The end result is a mixed bag with great performances from its incredible ensemble cast but a narrative that never quite travels anywhere, as Aaron has pointed out in his Filmotomy review here. […]

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