Saturday, June 10, 2006

In Theaters: A Prairie Home Companion

Columbia's Missouri Theater recently held a series of screenings for this film to mark its opening, since Columbia native Ken LaZebnik co-wrote the story. This means I got to see the movie on a large screen in a big old theater much like that in the film itself, which was a nice touch. The film itself is my favorite of the year so far, which would mean a lot more if I had seen more than four movies so far, but this is still an outstanding piece of work.

NPR listeners will know the show this is based on, and recognize old favorites as soon as Guy Noir intones "A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets..." Guy (Kevin Kline), a hardboiled private eye, has taken a job as security guard at the Fitzgerald Theater, home of "A Prairie Home Companion". But the radio station and the theater have both been bought out by a sinister Texas conglomerate who are shutting the operation down, and tonight is the last show. Host "GK" (Garrison Keillor himself) isn't that bothered and goes on as normal, saying he treats every show as the last. So we get a somewhat typical episode, with joke-telling cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), and commercials for duct tape, coffee, Powdermilk Biscuits and Be-Bop-A-Re-Bop Rhubarb Pie. But there's finality in the air, and a bit of death. Noir spends the evening trying to figure out the secret of a mysterious woman in white (Virginia Madsen), while Yolanda's daughter Lola (Lindsey Lohan) writes poems about suicide and is forced to listen to the sisters' endless reminiscence on their own careers.

The film is about death and endings, but not in a terribly sad way. It adopts GK's own calm, Lutheran perspective, with an ambiguous perspective on the fullness of time and the inevitability of endings and beginnings. It's worth noting that the real "Prairie Home Companion" did end once, when Keillor married and moved to Norway, but returned when he moved back and now will apparently continue on until who knows when.

Altman directs in the style anyone who's seen more than one of his films should know by now, relying on improvisation and the dedication of his cast to create a rich and full experience the viewer can immerse themselves in. The performances here are so good that I can't pick out a single best turn, though I suspect a few Oscar nominations will hit random cast members. Harrelson and Reilly get the most laughs, Streep and Tomlin seem to speak in the common and at-times-impenetrable language of real siblings, Madsen has appeared in so many B-noir movies that she exudes genre from the moment she walks on screen, and Kline manages to make every single gesture a sign of awkardness. There's also L.Q. Jones as an aging singer, Maya Rudolph as a put-upon and very pregnant stage manager, some actual cast and crew from the show itself, and Tommy Lee Jones as a sinister axe man.

This is a lush and engrossing film, and if it doesn't show off the full wit and spark of the actual radio show, it represents an interesting fusion of Keillor's and Altman's sensibilities, and should more than satisfy fans of either or both. Watch for this one in your area.

Grade: A

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