Friday, June 09, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion - Movie Review

A Prairie Home Companion 2006

“One more spring in Minnesota,
To come upon Lake Wobegon.
Old town I smell your coffee.
If I could see you one more time”
- Garrison Keillor

Faithful fans will attest to our love affair with the works of Robert Altman. Over the past four decades he has directed some of the best and most influential works in the cinema. From “M*A*S*H”, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”, “Images”, “The Long Goodbye”, “Nashville”, “3 Women”, “The Player”, “Short Cuts” to “Gosford Park” all of which are indelibly etched into our filmgoing history. While he certainly has his share of failures and near misses, his track record of successes is near unparalleled for a living director. This year he received his long overdue Oscar, unfortunately in the form of an Honorary Oscar. Now, with his film version of the long running radio program, “A Prairie Home Companion” he maintains his legendary status at the grand lion age of eighty-one!

A Prairie Home Companion” is of course the home spun, wry brain child of the master of storytelling, Garrison Keillor. Since the 1970s, Mr. Keillor has been charming listeners with his unparalleled delivery and incomparable charm seen on full display in this lovely film.

This is a film top heavy with stars, Oscar winners and famous celebs that manages the near impossible – to make us believe in their small town histories, give us a peek behind the curtain of a “fictional” longtime radio show, entertain us with a rousing song or two, and break our hearts with some incredibly tender moments that completely blind sided us with their veracity.

The film is set in Minnesota, like the radio show at the Fitzgerald Theatre (Yes, named after you know who, or should know who.) on the eve of their final broadcast prior to being demolished in favor of progress in the shape of a parking lot. The cast of regulars on the show include a sister act clinging to the past, two pun-swapping singing cowboys, a gospel infused diva, a husband and wife banjo/guitar picking duo and the requisite old timer.

The old timer is played with dead on aplomb by veteran character actor L.Q. Jones as a lusty old cowboy whose years of experience show in his weathered face and solid song stylings. Watch the beautiful moment onstage when he is lost in a tiny moment of self indulgence at the passing of time. Made us all weepy, it did.

As the singing cowpokes, Oscar nominees Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly trade quips and banter with a comfortable ease. Their “Bad Jokes” medley may not have you rolling in the aisles, but there is no denying their charm and we are drawn into their subtle exchanges behind the curtains that speak volumes about their relationship.

The focus may be on the onstage talent and their backstage shenanigans, but three members of the company remain outsiders. One, the security for the show is embodied in the character of Guy Noir (subtle moniker) as portrayed by Oscar winner Kevin Kline who takes absolutely no prisoners in his ability to work a physical pun or slapshot into the proceedings. Thankfully he is also the narrator to our evenings entertainment, allowing us to step quietly into the history of these folks with his own brand of mock-Hammett detective speak. He is apparently on high alert this evening as a mysterious woman has been seen patrolling the premises.

The mystery woman is played by Oscar nominated vet Virginia Madsen, who perhaps has the least well written role and somehow manages to bring her character to life. Which, being a distant cinematic cousin of the Jessica Lange role in “All That Jazz”, is quite a feat if you think about it.

Her payoff scene occurs late in the film when she is conversing with the grim uptight embodiment of corporate greed that comes to close the doors to the party. As played by Oscar winner, Tommy Lee Jones (did he really win an Oscar for “The Fugitive”? Shame, he is so much better than that.) the reality of the outside world seems to have floated around this charming old theatre and its blissfully ignorant inhabitants for far too long. We loved his solid stoicism while perched in the private box high above the onstage banter, quietly soaking in the performer's final hour.

If you watched this year’s Oscar telecast, and honestly who didn’t – you already had a sneak peek at the comedy duet here played perfectly by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin. As Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, they are the highlight of the film. Their backstage banter and onstage rivalry are a wonder to behold. And how precious and utterly believable were their shared storytelling skills in recounting their families' musical heritage. This is the kind of timing that cannot be taught, but when we are in its presence, we simply bask in their unashamedly brilliant acting chops.

As Yolanda’s suicidal poem scribbling daughter, Lindsay Lohan does wonders in downplaying her paparazzi infused celebrity by playing it lowkey and taking a firm backseat to the acting master class on display between Meryl and Lily. Now we don’t want to start an “Up with Lindsay” bandwagon, but we admire the fact that unlike her other Red Carpet Anorexic Whores with Post Nasal Drip, she can actually claim an acting pedigree that just might carry her thru to an adult movie career. That or she’ll be found stabbed to death with one of Paris Hilton’s jewel encrusted wedgies lodged in her eyeball socket, unceremoniously tossed into a dumpster in La Brea with cum clotted hair, missing leg, clutching a Proenza Schouler shopping bag and a forty ounce. Only time will tell.

And firmly at the center of the film is Garrison Keillor himself. If you have never seen him in action, then it would be easy to question how a man with a face like a parboiled ham and eyebrows that would cause envy in a hooded owl could possibly be so charismatic and entrancing a performer. Then again, he was big on radio. Which seems the perfect medium when you look like Garrison Keillor. However, here in the film adaptation, he not only manages to hold the show together but actually sells us on the backstage romance subplot between the master of ceremonies and Yolanda Johnson. Credit the crusty charm of Mr. Keillor and the acting prowess of Meryl Streep.

But despite the presence of such able and talented actors and performers, the show belongs to Robert Altman and his particular cinematic style. An important element of his signature style is his roving camera that longingly hovers amongst, between and around his talented ensemble. It doesn’t detract in a flashy attention grabbing fashion, rather it lovingly insinuates itself into the very storyline. Altman’s camera is indeed an additional character to his films. We feel like we’re eavesdropping and we relish every minute of it.

These are characters and relationships that linger in your memory. Now, perhaps the character of Guy as portrayed by Kevin Kline is a bit too broad to buy as genuine – but thankfully Mr. Kline has a knack for hamming it up and maintaining believability. While some might view the Virginia Madsen character as a skootch too mystical amidst a down-home ambiance, we feel it adds just the right touch of poetry. We doubt that “A Prairie Home Companion” will be remembered as Mr. Altman’s finest hour – but for our money it is one of the most tender, heartfelt and entertaining movies in his oeuvre. A most enjoyable evening spent in the magical dark. Go see it now! Bless you all!

Directed by Robert Altman
Screenplay by Garrison Keillor
Story by Garrison Keillor & Ken LaZebnik

Garrison Keillor as G.K.
Meryl Streep as Yolanda Johnson
Lily Tomlin as Rhonda Johnson
Lindsay Lohan as Lola Johnson
Woody Harrelson as Dusty
John C. Reilly as Lefty
Kevin Kline as Guy Noir
Virginia Madsen as Dangerous Woman
Maya Rudolph as Molly
Tommy Lee Jones as Axeman
Marylouise Burke as Lunch Lady
L.Q. Jones as Chuck Akers
Sue Scott as Donna
Tim Russell as Al
Tom Keith as Sound Effects Man
Jearlyn Steele as Herself

Cinematography by Edward Lachman
Film Editing by Jacob Craycroft
Costume Design by Catherine Marie Thomas
Production Design by Dina Goldman
Set Decoration by Tora Peterson


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