A Prairie Home Companion (2006)Rated PG-13 for risque humor.
Starring Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin.
LVJeff's Rating: 8/10
Photo ©Picturehouse. All rights reserved.
Going Out Performing
Robert Altman's movies are so patient and observant; the joy in viewing them comes from knowing he's probably learning as much as we are while sharing in the process of watching little dramas unfold. Altman's best films are about the small details of human affairs and interactions within some kind of self-perpetuating community. Lately, he's been adventurous, wading into territory he's relatively less familiar with. Last seen dropping in on the world of dance with The Company, Altman now finds himself visiting the fictional final broadcast of a radio variety theater show called "A Prairie Home Companion."
This world belongs to Garrison Keillor, host of the real-life St. Paul-based show of the same name, still on the air since 1974. Keillor wrote the script and stars as a version of himself in the movie, so it does seem odd that the story is about the show's demise. It appears to be a vehicle, though, for Keillor not only to show off the charms of the show but also to display his Midwesterner's never-say-die mentality. Or, more clearly, it's never-acknowledge-die -- Keillor's character (listed as "G.K.") works the broadcast as if it were any other day, despite being fully aware that the corporation which has bought the theater will drop the hatchet after this particular night.
Show regulars arrive to perform for the sendoff, including country-singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) and a cowboy comedy/singing duo (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly). Backstage, more characters can be found bustling, from a security officer who fancies himself a noir detective (Kevin Kline), Yolanda's faux-petulant adolescent daughter (Lindsay Lohan), and a mysterious woman in a trenchcoat (Virginia Madsen). Before the night is through, songs will be sung, reminiscences will be related, and death will rear its head.
Keillor may have intended the story to showcase the spirit of the entertainers, highly and stubbornly maintained even as the walls come tumbling down. However, the screenplay and Altman's quiet, steady direction emphasize finality, mortality, and legacy. While we feel quite at home with these talented, folksy friends, as the movie trots along the impending sense of doom fills the screen. And despite G.K.'s take on running the show, the doom seems to come with an overall sense of peaceful acceptance.
Like The Company, A Prairie Home Companion becomes an appreciation of artists, albeit a sadder one. In many ways, it complements The Company's depiction of budding, idealistic dancers. Hard work and scant odds of success don't discourage them while, in Prairie, the autumn of life also fails to trod the singers down. Many of the characters within the piece soldier on, and they have plans to continue down their paths no matter what gets thrown at them. They have to be who they are; the only reason to stop performing is death. And though they may not want to take the inevitable lying down, we -- the viewers and Altman -- observe them from the outside and know they can't avoid it. Yet, there's something satisfying about knowing they'll work on, and that their work and spirit will live on. In the twilight of his own career, Altman too soldiers on, but perhaps he's saying here that the end doesn't have to be bitter -- it can be bittersweet.
©Jeffrey Chen, May 24, 2006