"I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it." -Garrison Keillor
I must admit, at the very outset of this critique, that I am one of those people who have never seen and/or listened to - for good or bad (take your pick) - Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion (except for perhaps a loose excerpt here and there), but I must also admit to having formed an opinion on the whole thing regardless of my lack of knowledge on the subject. Listening to such descriptives as "home spun humor" and "heartland of America kind of stuff", I cannot help but be slightly (alright, more than slightly) put off of the whole shebang. Of course this opinion - however unfounded it may be - would not exactly put the new filmic version of A Prairie Home Companion into my must-see category, but with the attachment of Robert Altman as director and the subsequent casting of Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline and (above all) Meryl Streep, it has surely become one of my most anticipated films to see in 2006 (number two actually, second only to Lynch's Inland Empire). So with all that in mind (or in baggage if you will), I sat down to watch Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion.
Now I must admit something else. I liked the damned film - for the most part. Regardless of what I have heard of Keillor and his overly-sentimental ways, I found the whole thing to be a lot more sophisticated than I expected - albeit in a somewhat down-homey fashion. Perhaps not quite as intricate as some of Altman's past attacks on the modern world - such as Nashvile and The Player (two films that could easily play mother and father to his latest bastard child) - the screenplay (written by Keillor himself) still manages to exude an intelligence one might not readily expect from its rather corn-pone beginnings. A joke, told by two twig chewin' singin' cowpokes (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), necessitates a prior knowledge of Descartian philosophy - or, at the very least, a knowledge of who Descartes was - in order to get the punchline. Then again, since Altman had final script approval, perhaps this is more Altman and less Keillor in the end, as if Keillor brings the whimsy and Altman brings the discontentment and sedition.
The story of an antiquated radio show during its final performance in front of a live audience, before having its station taken over by the latest corporate buyout, A Prairie Home Companion, not unlike both of its aforementioned parents, double speaks and side steps its way through multi-layers of dialogue (in usual fashion, Altman had every inch of the set wired, so to catch even those conversations during which the actors were not on stage) and comes out the other side like a tired, yet triumphant amalgam of philosophical lay-about, political muckraker and show-biz weary Momus.
We get to watch - voyeur-like - as these exhausted veterans of this long-running near-dead radio program go about their final night. Keillor as G.K., the rather detached emcee, loping about like some sort of lumbering Buddha bear, dosing out little pearls of Wobegon wisdom as if he and his lilting-voiced stories are the only things that currently exist - no matter how much Maya Rudolph's stage manager barks, shouts or pleads. We get to watch as Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, as singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Jackson, finish each others quirky sentences with an even quirkier finish than they began with - an act we got to see them give a live dress rehersal for as they gave Mr. Altman his lifetime achievment Oscar at this past year's ceremonies. We also get to watch Lindsay Lohan transform herself into a much better actress than most anyone had given her credit for in the past - although I have always seen the possibility of great talent in there (especially during Mean Girls), as long as she stops doing films like Herbie: Fully Loaded or the current Just My Luck and concentrates instead on watching Streep (who plays her mother here) and learning from the best.
We also get to watch Harrelson and Reilly as Dusty and Lefty, the old trailhands, croon and burlesque their way through songs and bad jokes (they even have a song dedicated to and called "Bad Jokes") - both with a sort of brotherly love/hate relationship, where they play off each others weaknesses. And we get to watch the ever-snarky Kevin Kline as security guard (and Sam Spade delusioned) Guy Noir, bumble and fumble his way around backstage, searching for a white-clad mystery woman played by Virginia Madsen - all the time given free reign to ad lib and improv (hilariously I might add) his way through each and every scene. We also get to see oater staple, L.Q. Jones (who starred in pretty much every damned Western, both TV and film, over the last fifty years), lunch lady Marylouise Burke (last seen as Miles loquacious and pitiful mother in Sideways) and Keillor's own staple staff, Sue Scott, Tim Russell and Tom Keith (who gets to shine in one curious scene as the sound effects man versus Streep, Tomlin and Keillor's twisted senses of humour).
Is this one last ride on the Altman players express perhaps? A Democratic conglomeration of decidedly left-reared stars combined with many of Keillor's regular radio show staples, remembering at all times that this is not merely a story about the downfall of old-fashioned values (or even the downfall of artistic values in light of corporate greed) but is Altman's treatise on the fall of the American Empire at the hands of blind injustice and plain old stupidity - even Keillor's cozy little looks at midwestern values seems quite tongue-in-cheek, or perhaps even a bit on the Buddhist everything-is-suffering kind of mental track ("We come from people who brought us up to believe that life is a struggle, and if you should feel really happy, be patient: this will pass..") - and a not-so-hidden verbal and intellectual blitzkrieg on the so-called values of a certain current American administration (here represented by Tommy Lee Jones' the axeman cometh persona).
Put all the aforementioned ingrediants into a big pot, along with the surprisingly sardonic wit of Keillor and the overlapping audio (or "cascading" audio as Rob Nelson puts it in the Village Voice) of Altman and you have - despite the unnecessary coda seemingly tagged on at the last minute by possible request of the studio - quite a better film than first imagined. [06/07/06]