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PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (***½)
Movie Review by: Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Garrison Keillor
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, Tommy Lee Jones.
Running time: 105 minutes, Released: 06/09/06.
Rated PG-13 for risqué humor
Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion" is at least as much about the director as it is Garrison Keillor's long-running weekly radio show. Altman's long career has seen him subverting to his own purposes such unlikely candidates as the hard-boiled detective film ("The Long Goodbye"), the drawing room mystery ("Gosford Park"), the teenage gross-out comedy ("O.C. and Stiggs") and the comic strip movie ("Popeye"). So making a movie about a faux-nostalgic radio revue is in keeping with Altman's agenda: Aim for the unlikely.

The film is a rich, funny and warm examination of mortality told in sublimely subtle ways. Most of the great movies addressing death and dying, be they dramatic ("Wings of Desire"), comic ("Defending Your Life") or in-between ("The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp") are viewed from beyond the grave. But "A Prairie Home Companion," employing drama, comedy and music, looks at it straight on from this side, which is not to say it is without sentiment.

Saying good-bye to someone or something one loves is never less than bittersweet, and Altman and Keillor, playing himself in the screenplay he wrote, acknowledge this while carefully stepping around any mush. Their film is set on the night of the final broadcast of the show -- it's been axed by its new corporate owners, and some cast members are concerned that its host has elected not to acknowledge the fact on-air: "I've tried to do every show as if it were my last show," says Keillor, as offhandedly as he can without sounding smug.

While that may be just a poetic twist of the cliche about living every day as if it were your last, it is still a homily to embrace, and "A Prairie Home Companion" lives up to it. Altman is 81, and when he graciously accepted the lifetime achievement award given to him by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences earlier this year, he revealed he had heart transplant surgery more than a decade previous. For "A Prairie Home Companion" to meet the insurance requirements of the studio financing it, Altman had to have an understudy ("Magnolia" director Paul Thomas Anderson), just in case.
Thank goodness that wasn't necessary, because should this be Altman's last feature film, it accomplishes what few "final" films have: It is both a sweet summation and a casually, almost nonchalantly, great movie. Like the best Altman films, the plot is secondary to the characters, who, of course, are all performers -- even the iron-jawed businessman who arrives like the grim reaper to close down the show.

And like Keillor, who tells the tall tales, reads the old-timey, clever commercials, introduces the songs and even sings a few, they are all true Characters, with a capital C. The narrator is Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a security guard who dresses and speaks like a detective in a pulp novel and who gives us the lowdown on the cast members.

Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep, doing her own singing like everyone else in the cast) and her older sister Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) are the surviving members of a family singing group who, when not onstage, reminisce in their dressing room about the old days and the songs they sang for decades. Listening with outward disdain and boredom that camouflages actual interest is Yolanda's daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan), whose journal is full of poems about suicide.

Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) are a longtime duo who perform cowboy songs and tell exceedingly bad, often off-color, jokes, much to the dismay of the show's harried stage manager (Tim Russell). Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones) is the real deal, an elderly Western balladeer who really could shoe a horse or rope a doggie if anyone were to need that done.

Chuck also has a thing for the show's "sandwich lady" (Marylouise Burke), who tries to make sure all the performers are fed, while the very pregnant Molly (Maya Rudolph) does what she can to make sure Keillor makes all his cues and has his script in order, even if it means interrupting his backstage yarns.

As in Altman's more obviously ambitious panoramas like "Nashville," every player, onstage and off, has a story to tell and a desire they want fulfilled, whether they know it or not. And the ethereally beautiful, mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen) who has been given the run of backstage courtesy of an instantly smitten Guy Noir, just may fulfill some of these desires; she may even be heaven-sent.

In a movie season containing more soulless bombast and recycled cynicism than usual, this film feels heaven-sent. For fans of Keillor’s radio show, not to worry. The movie version is as comforting in its satiric nostalgia as is the weekly broadcast, though I do think that it was somewhat of a mistake not including the weekly “News From Lake Wobegon” segment in the cinematic version. This would have been a real opportunity for the film to have expanded beyond its setting, at least for one scene, and given the viewer an even greater sense of both Keillor’s and Altman’s storytelling abilities.

The movie is not just enormously entertaining, it is deeply moving, both in the way it celebrates storytelling and storytellers -- and in the unembarrassed way its creators and performers remind us how much we need them. The storytellers are not immortal, but the stories are a different matter, especially if they are told, or sung, with generosity, dignity and respect for an audience the performers may never see.

 

PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION © 2006 GreeneStreet Films
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2006 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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