June 24, 2006

Movie Review: A Prairie Home Companion

The more films I watch, the more I realize just how much there is to see. I like to think that I have watched a wide variety of films, but it pales in comparison to reality, including some very important films that are left to see. Why do I bring this up? Robert Altman is one of those directors whose name I know, but whose catalog is primarily foreign to me. Before A Prairie Home Companion, I had only seen a couple of his films. Now, I am sure you would rather read some thoughts about this film.

The film centers on the impending final show of a long running radio variety show called "A Priarie Home Companion," which is an actual show in Minnesota, hosted by Garrison Keillor who wrote the screenplay for this film based on his story, and also stars as the host, aptly named G.K. The story is in essentially real time, following the performers as they arrive and prepare for the show, then actually putting on the show while the drama swirls around them.

As the show goes on, they prepare for who they are calling The Axeman. The station had recently been purchased by a big unnamed Texas company, and they sent one of their men to Minnesota to deliver the bad news in person. Besides waiting for the bad news, they must contend with the personality conflicts that come up between the performers, who are much more like a family than mere co-workers. There is also the case of the mysterious woman in white, who has been seen walking around the premises.

The story just seems so inconsequential next to the personalities here, it is more like a "day in the life" type of tale. It made no difference whether the show actually got cancelled or not. I actually found myself disconnected from the film, I did not care about the story, and to an extent I really didn't have any connection to the characters. The strange thing is, I found myself wanting to see more of these people, it is something I cannot truly explain. It is as if I was kept at arms length despite my efforts to draw myself closer to them.

The characters and the way their parts are weaved throughout the tapestry of the film are where the heart lies. Robert Altman has done a fine job of moving from character to character, conversation to conversation masterfully, using the performance of the show as a bed on which to place the players. Each person has their own story to tell, they may not always tell the whole story, they may leave you wanting more, but at the some time you will just smile along with them, not really caring about what they so much as how they are.

The real strength lies in the casting. There is a fine ensemble assembled here, and while I wanted to know more about all of them, there were a few standouts. The character to payt attention to here is Guy Noir, played by Kevin Kline. Noir is an out of work private eye who is in charge of security for the show. His dialog makes him sound just like he is from a 1950s hard boiled detective, and if his delivery doesn't give it away, his name should be a hint. I loved watching him on the screen, his matter of fact, "just the facts," delivery is wonderful. Lindsay Lohan steps up her game here, she may not be one of the main performers, but her character of Lola Johnson, a suicide obsessesed teen is great. She shows here that she can be more than a tabloid target, I always thought she had the talent, this may be the proof. Comic relief is delivered in the cowboy duo of Dusty and Lefty, played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. These two are hilarious, their backstage banter, and particularly their "Bad Joke" song are absolute highlights. Virginia Madsen is the mysterious woman who is the object of Guy Noir's piqued interest. She glides through all the scenes she is in, integral to the story, but detached from the setting, much like how I viewed the film. Lastly, there is G.K., as played by the previously mentioned Garrison Keillor, he is a wonderful figure, host of the show and the glue holding them all together. There are a number other notables, but to go through them all would have us here all night and would do you the disservice of being able to uncover them all yourself.

The film is fascinating, yet the detachment I experienced is hard to overcome. Perhaps it is my lack of interest in the radio variety show, or of the music style performed? That is not to say it isn't good, or I don't enjoy it, or that it is any less valid than other styles, it is just not one that I would go out of my way for. However, this film is well worth seeing, despite my reservations, it is a film that I think my win me over with a few viewings. No, I don't feel a film should require multiple viewings, but I get the impression that there is a lot to discover inside this one.

Bottomline. Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor have crafted a loving ode to live radio. There is a certain beauty to how it is pieced together, it is almost poetic. As I write this, I feel my opinion of it changing, increasing as I have let it float around inside my head. This is a sweet film that is well worth your time.

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