Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006)

As a long-time fan of Garrison Keillor's sophisticated anachronism of a variety radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," I found that the film adaptation preserves the spirit if not the letter of the program. Full of country/gospel music and a stellar cast, not to mention the fluid direction of Robert Altman, Prairie mixes myth and fantasy (which is the radio show's stock and trade) with realistic backstage antics during the program's final broadcast.

Keillor's screenplay and performance are folksy and whimsical, but not without hints of dark humor and contemplation. "G.K.'s" refusal to face his show's demise, or even the actual death of a musical regular, belies both a breezy callousness and a deep understanding of the cliche, "the show must go on." He seems to be the most professional and least bothered amidst the whirlwind of characters and backstage intrigue. Only briefly hinted at is his history with one of a pair of singing sisters, Yolanda Johnson (the standout Meryl Streep), who perform a duet that develops the characters as much as a any monologue or scene could.

Music plays a huge part in the film, perhaps even moreso than on the radio show, connecting it thematically with Altman's previous masterpiece of country, Nashville; except where that film's characters hid their true selves through jingoistic marches or ballads dripping with false emotion, the performers of A Prairie Home Companion open up and bare themselves in collective or individual celebrations of an old-fashioned musical form.

This isn't to suggest the film is all musical numbers and sentimentalism. Tempering the celebration of a lost art form (live radio variety) are supernatural occurrences revolving around a Dangerous Woman (the luminous, but slightly sleepwalking Virginia Madsen); the depressing daughter of Yolanda, Lola (Lindsay Lohan); the bawdy cowpokes Dusty and Lefty (John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson); and the Clouseau-esque security chief Guy Noir (Kevin Kline). The final three characters are adapted from the radio program, but beyond their very basic descriptions, there's not much similarity. Each character provides atmosphere and levity while contributing to the anachronistic set of radio personalities. Some of the famous elements of the radio program, including Keillor's famous monologue about his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, are sadly missing or only appear in fragments. Both the director and screenwriter's works are acquired tastes, so neither is attempting to convert those who haven't or are unwilling to hear the show.

Robert Altman provides his signature visual sense that gels perfectly with Keillor's screenplay's knack for juggling multiple storyline threads. I found no one to be entirely the focus, but that the show itself was allowed to be the centerpiece. The camera expertly navigates through the hallways and crevices of the studio, jostling past crew members and catching multiple, unrelated characters in the frame together (especially with the Dangerous Woman lurking about). With Altman's aging and revelation about a heart transplant, the film's preoccupation with death can be contributed as much to the director as to the screenwriter. It seems as much Altman's baby as it does Keillor's.

The film met my expectations for both Altman and "A Prairie Home." It was sweet, funny, deceptively sad, comforting, and a good deal rambling. It accepts the end of an era without any maudliness or fake tears. Having "silence on the radio" is just a phase, because you can always switch to another station.

IMDb page

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