Altman’s Prairie: Woe Be Gone!

The jabbering, meandering and ossified movie that Robert Altman has made from Garrison Keillor’s lumbering, affected and pointless audio curiosity A Prairie Home Companion is not a movie at all. It’s like notes for a movie that was never completed, retrieved from a wastebasket and filmed all night in a broadcast studio before the parking meters ran out of quarters. The result, if you can imagine anything so deadly, is like watching radio.

Since I have never been a listener of Mr. Keillor’s dopey, long-running program, I am probably not his perfect test-market watcher. But the show’s longevity indicates that it must have its fans. It first aired in 1974 and became a popular cornerstone of National Public Radio for reasons none of its devoted followers have ever been able to explain convincingly. On the rare occasions when I have forced myself to tune in and find out what the fuss is about, I have always ended up dial-doodling in search of weather reports or Tommy Dorsey records. As radio goes, I prefer reruns of Baby Snooks. But the chronicles of a fictional Minnesota hamlet called Lake Wobegon have now been cloned into a rambling screen fable that is not only corny, lumbering and dull, but also pretentious, because it pretends that a lug-load of tasteless cracker-barrel baloney can pass for 105 minutes of heirloom charm. A Prairie Home Companion is about as charming as waking up with a dead animal in your bed.

Mr. Keillor, a myopic doughboy who wrote the script and stars in the film as the radio host, wears red socks—an affectation that was more becoming on Van Johnson. Instead of a local Minnesota version of Jean Shepherd or Herb Shriner, he’s a multimillionaire wheeler-dealer in Manhattan real estate with as much folksy down-home charm as Donald Trump. Instead of interesting Dogpatch characters, he pieces together gingham Lum and Abners in doll costumes. Instead of a plot, A Prairie Home Companion features the kind of all-star cast only Robert Altman could recruit in these budget-conscious days of independent production and deferred profit-sharing.

Instead of narrative exposition, there is merely a patchwork-quilt premise: On a rainy Saturday night in town, across the street from Mickey’s Diner, the crowd gathers for the weekly country-variety radio show that’s “been on the air since Jesus was in the third grade,” according to the narrator, Keillor “regular” Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a washed-up detective who works as a clumsy backstage doorman and appears to be raving mad. This is a night like no other, because a greedy Texas corporation (represented by Tommy Lee Jones) has bought the theater and plans to turn it into a parking lot. But the show must go on, and in typical Altman style, everybody sings, mumbles, and babbles on and on at the same time in overlapping jabberwocky about absolutely nothing at all.

Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep provide the film’s most humorous moments as Rhonda and Yolanda, a singing-sister act from the county-fair circuit who screech out hillbilly lyrics like “We’ll eat pot luck and pluck guitars down on old Plank Road.” Lindsay Lohan makes a respectable career move as Ms. Streep’s depressed teenage daughter Lola, who writes morose poems about suicide. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are Dusty and Lefty, a pair of raunchy guitar pickers who pass gas and caterwaul a filthy duet called “Bad Jokes.” (Many of the worst musical numbers, apparently a staple of the show, were written by Mr. Keillor, who is no Stephen Sondheim.)

The funniest person in the movie is Tom Keith, the show’s real sound-effects man, who plays himself and keeps the action moving with the sounds of shotguns, chain saws and barking Rottweilers. Throughout the tedium, Garrison Keillor plays an M.C. named G.K., sings commercial jingles about pizzas and powder-milk biscuits, and tells a penguin joke nobody understands. None of it is particularly amusing, and all of it shows a disappointing lack of originality. Like Altman’s Nashville, the film relies heavily on a nonstop menu of musical numbers. Unlike most Altman films, it seems to have been edited with a hedge pruner.

I guess A Prairie Home Companion is strictly for fans—the regular listeners who have a passion for nonsense songs like “Beboparebop Rhubarb Pie” and “Piscacadawadaquoddymoggin” and thrill to soliloquies about duct tape. But that still doesn’t explain Virginia Madsen, wafting through the noise and backstage confusion as an Angel of Death in a white trench coat who may—or may not—be in town to select customers for the local undertaker. This is never clear. One of the cast members drops dead during the broadcast, but it’s probably from boredom.

Damien’s Back!

“Unnecessary” is the word for the remake of The Omen. After the original 1976 horror classic and all of the cheesy rip-offs and sequels that followed, nothing new is revealed here, but the old formula still works. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Fright flicks with style, sophistication and doses of good old spleen-churning terror are rare. The Omen, a yarn about the arrival of the Antichrist in the form of a deceptively cherubic little boy who brings Armageddon to the home of a powerful and respected U.S. ambassador, scared the sap out of everybody 30 years ago, and it still packs a wallop. Branded with the numbers “666” (“the Mark of the Beast”), the Devil’s spawn has been giving people the heebie-jeebies for years. (Nancy and Ronald Reagan even had their West Coast address, a house numbered 666, changed by the city of Los Angeles, to the understandable annoyance of their neighbors.) No wonder the Beelzebubs toiling away in Hollywood P.R. opened the new version of The Omen on 6/6/06.

Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles are no Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, but as diplomat Robert Thorn and his wife Katherine, they face the same dilemma. When their child is born dead in Rome, a Vatican priest mutters, “The darkest evil this way comes” and offers an orphaned substitute to the husband, clutching his crucifix and adding, “God will forgive this deception.” But as we all know, the infant Thorn (Mr. Schreiber) brings to his wife’s hospital bed is the son of Satan, not God, and there’ll be Hell to pay. Knowing nothing of this, Katherine (Ms. Stiles) names the child Damien and showers him with love. Thorn is appointed American ambassador to Great Britain, and everything looks rosy. The Thorns have a beautiful estate near London, a healthy, curly-haired son, and a golden political future.

Suddenly, like a bolt of evil lightning, things turn ugly. At a pastoral birthday party, the boy’s nanny commits suicide by leaping from the roof with a noose around her neck. A sinister, snarling mastiff appears from the woods to act as an unwanted watchdog over the child. Gorillas in the zoo shriek and run from Damien in terror. Suddenly, a sweet, prim, soft-spoken but mysterious Mary Poppins replacement arrives in the form of Mia Farrow. “I’m the family nanny,” smiles Mia, “here to spread a bit of cheer.” The crowd roars. We’ve all seen Rosemary’s Baby. Let the fun begin.

It’s not just another movie about demonic possession, like The Exorcist, although that same theological mixture of man vs. devil forms its core. It expands and elaborates the genre in effectively hair-raising ways. A grotesque priest (Pete Postlethwaite) who lives in a room filled with religious symbols and walls papered in pages from the Bible delivers demented warnings before a stake is driven through his heart. A photographer (David Thewlis) discovers bizarre markings in his photos that threaten death for the Thorns unless Damien is destroyed. These events are effective enough to leave you checking your pulse, but you haven’t seen anything yet. It gets scarier. The journey to find weapons of destruction for Damien before he destroys the world leads to a cave near Jerusalem, a graveyard dig and endless tragedies. The finale gives goose bumps a new definition.

At the root of the dark prophecies is a passage from Revelation, freely translated by screenwriter David Seltzer to include references to the common market, politics, terrorists, tsunamis, hurricanes and Zionism. He also wrote the 1976 film and retains every element of his original script, while director John Moore adds tricks that jump out at you to make you scream. (The whole movie looks like it was intended for 3-D.) Famous scenes such as the colliding tricycle at the top of the staircase and the cemetery at midnight where Thorn is attacked by flesh-eating black ghost dogs still put ice on my spine. Filmed in Prague, the film now has the creepier look and feel of a world beyond the living. The cinematography better juxtaposes the cold daylight of reality with the hidden dangers in seemingly ordinary people and things (never has so much menace been extracted from dogs and toys). In the early version, Billie Whitelaw as the devil’s apostle who guards Damien from harm was so menacing she offered no surprise when she turned violent. Delicate but deceiving, Mia Farrow provides an element of surprise, like a cross between Lilith and Elsie Dinsmore. I don’t approve of remakes, but The Omen redux is riveting, imaginative and ultimately bone-chillingly satisfying.

A Real Looker!

The testosterone level at Feinstein’s at the Regency is running amok. Suave and rugged—a winning combination—suits James Naughton whether he’s playing a guitar in jeans or crooning show tunes in impeccable Armani. Mesmerizing the ringsiders in this new show through June 10, the two sides of Mr. Naughton’s finely toned personality are given equal time. Dashing and movie-star handsome, he’s got Cary Grant hair, Gary Cooper nonchalance and pipes that can tear up the joint on lease-breakers by Tom Waits and Randy Newman, or wrap a burnished ballad baritone around standards like “My Foolish Heart” and “I’m Glad There Is You” with romantic yearning. His patter is easy and cool, notes from his personal show-business diary full of love and lore about idols and influences like Tony Bennett, Joe Williams and Billy Eckstine. Because cabaret audiences are sparse on weeknights, he used the room on the Thursday I caught the show like the den in his Connecticut home—trading quips, talking music and sharing rare gems like the great, overlooked Jimmy Van Heusen song “Where Did Everyone Go?”, recorded years ago by Nat King Cole.

Backed by a thumbs-up quartet headed by ace pianist John Oddo, he leaves no tempo unexplored. A welcome tribute to the late, great Cy Coleman, who started Jim’s Broadway musical career with I Love My Wife and City of Angels, includes both a fast, funny comment on contemporary stoned society called “Everybody Today Is Turnin’ On” and a Sinatra evergreen, “Why Try to Change Me Now?” For laughs, I could do without Randy Newman’s “Shame” or any other song that rudely rhymes “Miss” with “piss.” But levity is broadening, and a 50’;s encore of sha-na-na, sh-boom and doo-wop doo-doo is undeniably hilarious. Whatever he tackles, James Naughton is polished and perfect. This is a show that adds spruce to the close of the supper-club season.

Altman’s Prairie: Woe Be Gone!