A Prairie Home Companion (Picturehouse, PG-13)

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Where Altman reminds us the film is about all things ending, Keillor gives us a reason to laugh about it and move on.

 

When a Texas conglomerate buys out the WLT radio station in St. Paul, Minnesota, it's curtains for the home of Garrison Keillor and his live broadcast radio show of over 30 years. This is the outline of Robert Altman's 39th film, A Prairie Home Companion, a story the legendary director says is about death. Based on the NPR radio show of the same name, Companion offers a fictional look at the show's last performance and the performers within. Death does loom around every corner of the film, but at the same time, a charming dry sense of humor pillows the blow, mainly supplied by the film's charismatic characters. The trouble sits in balancing a film about loss with an optimistic story about change.

Enter Keillor and co-writer Ken Lazebnik's screenplay, a disconnected reality to what is really happening in the story. While some characters in the movie share a sense of being nostalgically connected to the radio show, Keillor (who also plays himself in the film) seems to move seamlessly through his last night, not showing any emotion for what's going on. Maybe it's the fact that Keillor is a Midwesterner, and understands that whenever something good comes along, it eventually does pass. Altman, also from the Midwest, must understand this as well, as the two personalities coexist peacefully in the telling of the story. Where Altman reminds us the film is about all things ending, Keillor gives us a reason to laugh about it and move on.

The dream cast Altman put together for Companion is just as impressive as his other films. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep are Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, a sister singing act that has somehow survived the county fair circuit. Streep's daughter in the film is Lola (Lindsay Lohan), a typical teen obsessed with writing bad poetry who seems rightfully out of place against the old-timey atmosphere. Kevin Kline is Guy Noir, a down-on-his-luck detective serving as the theater's backdoor security. While his character does have moments of insightful clarity, his clichéd 1940s demeanor forces him to come off as contrived. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly play Dusty and Lefty, two cowboy singers who shoot filthy jokes at each other on stage. Their performance as a comic duo fractures the ominous death theme in the right places for a break in the action.

With comedy as the stress reliever, the death theme rings loudly as the main premise of the film. When show cast member Chuck Akers (L.Q Jones) dies backstage, Keillor lightheartedly refuses to have a moment of silence, stating, ‘"Silence on the radio-I don't know how that works." There is room for a fart joke as Klein explains that once a body expires, it expels excess gas. Even Lohan's shirt seems to bring home the message, sporting "extinct is forever." The fact that she's wearing it while cheerfully singing "In the Sweet By and By" is what ultimately makes death seem OK.

The secret of how Altman and Keillor have gotten this movie to work so well sits in the format: tragedy broken up by comedy. It's like watching a man get hit in the groin. It hurts, but it is always funny. This movie works hard to win you over, even if you're not a fan of Keillor's radio show (and I'm not). The overall result is Keillor reaching beyond his already established audience and into new territory. It looks like the effort has paid off.

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