The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - A Prairie Home Companion

Full review behind the jump

A Prairie Home Companion
: Robert Altman
: story by Garrison Keillor and Ken LaZebnik, screenplay by Garrison Keillor, based on his radio program
: Robert Altman, Wren Arthur, Joshua Astrachan, Tony Judge, David Levy
: Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Lindsay Lohan, Maya Rudolph, Virginia Madsen, Marylouise Burke, L.Q. Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, and Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band

The newest film by Robert Altman – the last of the rebel directors of the 70’s still rebelling against anything – is a very good variety show about a very good variety show. Put less briefly, it depicts a fictional broadcast of
A Prairie Home Companion, the live radio program Garrison Keillor has produced and hosted for most of the past thirty years; which includes songs both funny and spiritual, jokes both opaque and profane, fake commercials for products like Powdermilk Biscuits (as always, to be found in the big blue box with the picture of the biscuit on the cover), reports from Keillor’s fictitious hometown Lake Woebegone and inspirational stories that may not have happened. This movie of A Prairie Home Companion depicts most of the above along with keenly observed character comedy, gentle pathos, pratfalls, regret, a death, fart humor, and an angel.

There’s additional narrative oomph provided – this is to be
Prairie’s final broadcast before its theatre is demolished by a Texas conglomerate. Loyal longtime cast members (real performers from the show are mixed seamlessly in with the actors) feel helpless in the face of this deadline, and hope it will be commemorated. But GK – Keillor plays himself, as no actor would really do – sees no point to it. He soldiers on as if it is just another show, and that next week there will be another.

There’s a willpower represented here, a way of commenting on all other things by focusing feverishly on this single thing. For all the ways it kids itself, and for all the ways Keillor makes himself the butt of the gag, what draws people into the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota is that he seems to be trying to imagine an America better than the one outside. One that embraces our heritage but with a sense of bemusement, that celebrates hard work but keeps a community spirit alive, that takes the best elements of spirituality but has no use for prejudice or intellectual laziness. And if he keeps his head down and keeps doing this funny and strange little show, maybe one day he’ll leave the theatre and find the world has moved towards him just a bit. Not that you’d ever catch him admitting he cares all that much. Trying to pin down his motives would be like trying to get a straight answer out of him about how he got into radio.

The movie – restricting itself to the theater’s environs and the diner across the street, makes the same commentary – it’s cold and frightening outside, but in here it’s cozy, at least until the demolition crew comes. As a bit of ebbing fire from a cinematic hellraiser in his autumn years, it presents an inviting, familial atmosphere even as Altman’s usual subversive muscles are at work below the surface.

We have a tour guide, of sorts: Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a former private detective who now supervises “security” at the show, but spends most of his time devising new ways to torture metaphors. And we have some stars – the Johnson Sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), a singing act with fewer sisters than it used to have, and the Trail Guides, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), whose songs come around to lewd by way of cornball. Yolanda Johnson (Streep) has a daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan), who probably wishes someone would react more when she tells them she’s writing poems about suicide.

The actors are called upon to sing and play instruments and to not look out of place next to their professional counterpoints, and at this they are successful and at ease. They are also, in the tradition of Robert Altman films, required to layer dialogue, mix improvisation in and create a general atmosphere of spontaneity – Streep and Tomlin are particularly delightful in this regard, it seems almost unfathomable that this is Streep’s first Altman experience. It’s as if the sisters have spent so long making music together on-stage that they attempt to harmonize in conversation out of habit.

It is the prodigiousness of Streep’s talent, though, that exposes the movie’s chief miscalculation – the inclusion of a romantic subplot that involves Keillor. It requires more of him as an actor than he can provide, and it’s disconcerting to see the emoting of others disappear into him like a black hole. It might be a kind of extra triple-lindy backflip of commentary, pointing out how thoroughly out of his element he is outside his role as MC, but if so that’s one excess gesture I can’t come aboard with.

Like with any Altman smorgasbord there are moments to treasure just as there are moments that will puzzle or infuriate you. In a larger sense this movie is mourning something – maybe it’s saying that the outside world pushes so hard on us now that we can’t even have our little dream inside our little theater. Younger artists wouldn’t have made it this way – they would have looked for that happy surprise that saves the show and keeps this large, ecstatically-dysfunctional brood together. But where the movie chooses to end makes that thesis harder to nail down.

I said there’s a death in the course of the movie – watch how the major characters each make the best of it in their own way. Things end, even lives, but life itself continues. If that’s the message, then what a sweet sentiment from a couple of old rebels.


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