Saturday, June 17, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion

Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Garrison Keillor

Robert Altman has always been anti-Hollywood in his approach and perspective of film, coming in its most literal fashion with his great The Player in 1992. And every five years or so, he comes out with a film that gets the critics singing his praises again. I don't think A Prairie Home Companion is going to be like the furor over Gosford Park in 2001, but once again Altman shows he's got a style and an interesting perspective even now, currently in his eighties.

This movie is like Altman's Nashville if that movie were strictly about the Grand Ole Opry and the different singers onstage. Most of his movies have always had a real-time feel, without the gimmick, and this is no exception. And much like a tourist trying to soak in as much as possible without missing anything, his films often have multi-layered dialogue and scenes--people will be talking and then he'll cut away, but you can still hear them in the background as the visuals are of something else--many times understated. As such, Altman's movies require multiple viewings. As much as I wasn't that big a fan of Gosford Park or Nashville on my first viewings, a second viewing made them better, and who knows, in five years or so I'll be talking about how great both are (I've already gotten to that point with Nashville).

Minnesotan Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show actually exists, but this concerns its fictional demise. Performing on the old-timey show are acts like the Johnson sisters (Meryl Streep and Altman regular Lily Tomlin), and Yolanda's (Streep) daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) and the cheeky blue musical cowboy duo Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly). Backstage is the hilariously inept security guard Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), who like the radio show is stuck in another time and speaks in hard-boiled language that's way off-center, the pregnant show runner Molly (SNL's Maya Rudolph), and a mysterious angel (Virginia Madsen) who seems to bring death wherever she goes. Then there's the Texas businessman (Tommy Lee Jones) who is going to turn the theatre into a parking lot, taking in the last show with indifference. As Altman is prone to do, his camera wanders around backstage and onstage, finding humor or weirdness or unexpected tragedy.

It's not a great movie, but serviceable. I thought the death angel idea was a pretty bad one, very out of place for a picture like this. Standing out is Kline, who is funny in just about every scene, Keillor, whose perspective on all of the events around him is always even-keeled (no pun intended), and Harrelson and Reilly, whose "bad jokes" are a highlight, especially when we see the reactions of other people. It's a decent card in Altman's career winning hand.


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