Monday, June 26, 2006

Liquor she said, and lick her I did, and I don't work there anymore.

Robert Altman is a cinematic pointillist. He weaves together snippets of overlapping dialogue and action to create broad, sweeping portraits. In an Altman film, one brief moment can bring the entire narrative into focus - think of Henry Gibson exclaiming "This isn't Dallas, this is Nashville!", or the birthing method in 3 Women, or Jennifer Jason Leigh's explanation of virtual reality in Short Cuts. So the director is a perfect fit for A Prairie Home Companion, the fictionalized adaptation of the long-running radio variety show created by Garrison Keillor. Not every moment holds up to close scrutiny here, but when the film works, it cooks.

A Prairie Home Companion takes place during the final broadcast of the program after a 30-year run. The show's home, the Fitzgerald theatre, has been bought by a corporate axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) and is soon to be turned into a parking lot (as beloved cultural institutions always are in films - I appreciated David Cross' character in Curious George remarking that museums are fleeting, but parking lots are forever). The performers include Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), the remaining members of the Johnson Family band; raunchy cowboy singers Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), and veteran crooner Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones, wonderful as always). Behind the scenes, the show's security guard, the Marlowe-esque gumshoe Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), tries to save the show and discover the identity of a mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen) waiting in the wings. Keillor plays a version of himself - the host of the program, he's reluctant to openly acknowledge the show's end. When asked if he wants to be remembered, he responds that "I don't want them to be told to remember me." He's at the heart of the film, which is a bittersweet rumination on how all things must come to an end.

I recently heard an NPR review of the film; it would seem that NPR listeners would be the target audience for the film, but the reviewer complained that the emphasis on death put a morbid damper on the fun. It's true that this is a sadder film than I expected, but it's also a very rewarding one. The film opens with a starry sky and the distant sound of radio signals travelling through space; we're reminded upfront of the power of storytelling and performance to cut through the weight of silence. As is often the case with Altman, it can be almost too painful to bear; a scene where a woman discovers her deceased husband tapped directly into my deepest fears. And yet, he's also a compassionate director - he doesn't lie to us, but he gives us hope as the woman is reminded to celebrate her husband's life. A Prairie Home Companion is ultimately a celebration - of life, of song, of family, and of the ways that we rage against the dying of the light.

As always, Altman gives his actors plenty of room to breathe and explore, and the results are often wonderful. Streep and Tomlin have a sweetly daffy interplay onstage and in the dressing room; they convincingly share the easy affection that only sisters can have. Reilly and Harrelson have a blast telling the worst of jokes with gusto (and they share the best fart joke in recent memory). The contrivance of placing a forties archetype like Guy Noir is a bit of a stretch, but Kline does his funniest work in years, so it's hard to complain too much. Madsen has my favorite performance in the film - she takes an almost impossible-to-play character and invests her with many layers of humanity and melancholy insight. I'm relieved to report Lohan, as Yolanda's death-obsessed daughter Lola, carries her own and has a great show-stopping number near the end; I hope that she soon graduates from tween swill, because she has that kind of guilelessness that you can't fake. And how cool is it that Garrison Keillor has a leading role in a major motion picture? Pay close attention to a scene when he's informed that he is not, as he suspected, about to die; he responds to this news with deadpan brilliance, the smallest gesture of his hangdog face telling us more than a thousand words. I hope he parlays A Prairie Home Companion into an acting career; I'd love to see him pop up here and there as the wacky professor, say, or the grizzled sea captain.

A Prairie Home Companion does take one unfortunate misstep in the final third (it involves Madsen and Jones' characters). Not only does it serve no narrative purpose, but it seems to exist at odds with the rest of the film; it's bitter and shallow. However, it's possible that, as with much of Altman's work, it will become clearer with future viewings - it's a very good film now, but it could be a great one after I've seen it five times. As it stands now, it's more fun than anything else playing right now.

Sidenote: I've found the publicity for the film, which focuses on the theme of death, very distasteful. First, because the 81-year-old Altman has been asked repeatedly, in various ways, "So, what's it like knowing you're gonna die soon?" And second, because everyone knows that Altman will last two hundred years.

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