neman woman

Sunday, June 11, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: A Prairie Home Companion - by Daniel Neman

You could watch "A Prairie Home Companion" or you could listen to it on the radio and save yourself $8.50.

The movie is about the popular long-running radio program, and even though it is ever so slightly fictionalized it's not much different from the weekly show. And that's a problem.
In a movie, you want a story, or at least insightfully observed characters doing something of interest. But "A Prairie Home Companion" doesn't have a story; it only has a theme: Death comes to us all. That's undeniably true, but also kind of a bummer.
To fill the time between variations on this theme, the film shows a lot of actors singing. The last time a movie successfully showed a lot of actors singing was the 1975 flick "Nashville," which also had no story and which managed to be a perfect snapshot of America at the time.
"Nashville" was directed by Robert Altman, who also directs "A Prairie Home Companion."
Clearly, Altman was hoping for lightning to strike twice. But "A Prairie Home Companion" isn't "Nashville." It's more of a suburb, like Gallatin or Franklin.
In lieu of a story, "A Prairie Home Companion" presents the popular radio show's last broadcast -- death even comes to radio shows, the movie says.
As in the real show, we see a mixture of down-home music and commercial parodies. Because that is not enough to hold our attention on-screen, we are also shown what happens backstage during a live radio performance.
As it turns out, not much does. The performers sit around reminiscing about what got them into the business. Garrison Keillor, the creative force behind the show and the movie, bloviates endlessly and with great self-importance about absolutely nothing.
The standouts are Meryl Streep, this time with a Wisconsin accent, as a mother and Lindsay Lohan as her typical teenage daughter who writes poetry exclusively about suicide. Streep sings onstage with her sister, played by Lily Tomlin, who often graces Altman's better movies.
Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly take the roles of wiseacre singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty, who perform a song meant to recall the "Prairie Home Companion" annual joke show. L.Q. Jones plays another singer who apparently has an ongoing dalliance with a backstage worker (Marylouise Burke).
And Robin and Linda Williams play themselves, to show what real musicians can do.
Weaving uneasily through these characters is Kevin Kline, who plays Guy Noir, Private Eye. But Guy Noir is a parody, a way of poking fun at hard-boiled detective fiction and films noir, and to mix him in with the more realistic characters is the film's biggest mistake.
On the other hand, Kline does a brilliant and funny telephone bit with Maya Rudolph as the efficient assistant stage manager. It's one of the few highlights, along with the haunting final scene. Like so much else in the film, though, this last scene is only in keeping with the theme and has nothing to do with what would be the story, if there were one.
Gliding ethereally through the film is Virginia Madsen, who is identified in the credits as The Dangerous Woman. The filmmakers want her to be a mystery, but then they give away her secret by the placement of light bulbs, of all things.
Keillor wrote the script and is at the film's center, and he is a black hole sucking all the energy out of the movie. With his marbleized performance, his interminable stories and the way he insinuates himself into other people's singing, he reveals only an all-consuming ego.
You've never seen anyone so darn proud of his own modesty.



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