Those who, like me, are long term fans of A Prairie Home Companion, looked forward to the theatrical release of the movie version, the video version of which is due out this week. Shot almost entirely inside St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater (the radio broadcast's home stage) the film captures the loose structure, offbeat humor, and peculiar tone of this stalwart of the upper Midwest. If you don't know or appreciate all the above, well, let's say you'll wonder what the stir is about.
In a way, the film demonstrates the perfect marriage of talents: in this case, Keillor's screenplay and Robert Altman's direction could hardly be more suited to each other. Think of an Altman film like Nashville, which attempts to mesh a number of story lines, most of them involving musical performers. Fans will recognize Robin and Linda Williams, Peter Ostroushko, Rich Dworsky, and sundry regulars, including the marvelous Tom Keith, sound effects man extraordinaire. But others, known more for their cinematic than their musical talents, also contribute. Meryl Streep, it turns out, is a terrific singer, and Lily Tomlin follows her well enough as the lesser half of The Singing Johnson sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda. As Streep's daughter, Lola, Lindsay Lohan makes a credibly disaffected teenager, though her singing is somewhat eclipsed by the more mature actors'. In particular, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, both Oscar nominees, delight as a "singing cowboy"¯ duo. (The bawdy lyrics of their last song, all by themselves, might have earned the film its "PG-13"¯ rating; people who know some Lena and Ole jokes will scarcely be offended, and the song gives the lagging late action a boost.)
What there is of a plot is held together by the narration and backstory supplied by Guy Noir, Keillor's fictional private eye, who is here filling a six-year hiatus between jobs as the permanent part-time security guy for the show. Kevin Kline renders Noir as a sort of home-grown Inspector Clouseau, a vain bumbler who never met a reflective surface he didn't like. He's the first one to spot a "dangerous woman"¯ and self-proclaimed angel (Virginia Madsen), whose task is to escort someone out of this life. One old performer does pass away during the show, but that's not the only death. In fact, the show itself is on the chopping block. See, the station (WLT, after the "with lettuce and tomato"¯ trimmings the original owner featured on his cafe's sandwiches) is being sold to a born-again Texan (Tommy Lee Jones), who puts in an extended cameo. His character is supposed to supply the dramatic tension, but it winds up not mattering much. The antagonist, he never even meets the protagonist (presumably Keillor), so there's no climactic moment"”sorta like the show itself.
The movie isn't especially interesting cinematically, except for the editing, switching from onstage to backstage"”though even there, the sound work keeps us apprised that the show must, indeed, go on. Keillor is a fair country screenwriter, not surprisingly, given his experience with the monologue, the short comedic skit, and the novel. He is less impressive as an actor, his deadpan, monotone delivery at times creating a further drag on the already relaxed action. It's hard to feel the necessary anxiety around the issue of the theater closing when the central figure doesn't seem to care, one way or another.
I've had the pleasure to meet Keillor a couple of times. (I even schlepped Lake Woebegone posters for him, once upon a time.) I admire his writing and originality, and his allegiance to his roots. He's the heir apparent to Mark Twain, whom I shamelessly love. I also appreciate the body of work of Altman, a maverick in his medium in much the same way.
So I wish that their first collaboration, A Prairie Home Companion were better than it is. There's some talk that they might recombine on a film about Lake Woebegone, which is, oddly, never mentioned here. I have hopes for that project: the satiric bite of the "Letters"¯ from his fictional home that he reads on the show and the small town lives he depicts (and subtly skewers) there and in his novels would have given this movie a little more edge.