A Prairie Home Companion
2006Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan, Lily Tomlin
mericana is a pretty tough thing to pull off with some semblance of intelligence and sincerity. Well-meaning attempts are too often bogged down by Rockwellian schmaltz, or stray toward cheap, obvious vitriol. Garrison Keillor’s long-running, Minnesota-based radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, remains a charming, idiosyncratic exception. Keillor understands the history of American entertainment, but more importantly, gets why we retain such a soft spot for the myths of our pop cultural past.
In this regard, Robert Altman seems something of a kindred spirit. Lauded as a maverick at the forefront of Hollywood’s second golden age, Altman has always been as much a gifted showman as a stubborn iconoclast. You say McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Gosford Park. I say M*A*S*H and Secret Honor. Tomatoes, tomahtoes, etc. History is a ghost story, and it’s also, well, pretty funny sometimes.
The best joke in Altman’s screen adaptation / behind-the-scenes dramatization of A Prairie Home Companion involves, of all people, Lindsay Lohan. She’s the youngest—by a decade or so, easy—principal in Altman’s A-list cast. Her character, Lola, is the daughter of the sweeter half of a sister singing duo (Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin) and writes poetry detailing myriad methods of suicide. Lola is, for all intents and purposes, a 21st Century emo kid. Dollars to doughnuts says she has a MySpace page and the new Hawthorne Heights record on her iPod. But when her mom coaxes her onto stage to sing a standard for the show, you can hear her voice crack with emotion, and maybe even spot a tear in the corner of her eye. In response to a pair of faux-cowboy horndogs (Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly) proposing a duet, she says enthusiastically, “Oh, I know ‘Amazing Grace.’”
Keillor himself is, at once, center stage and purposefully peripheral. He’s the emcee, the ringmaster, the folksy older gent who’s cannier than he’s willing to let on. He’s the author of the script for this film, but he smartly saves the best bits for Streep, Tomlin, Harrelson, et al. There are moments that really stick here, and there are also loose ends, stretches of narrative that go effectively nowhere and feel forced. A Prairie Home Companion the movie bears as little resemblance to the sterile summer movie-movies packing multiplexes as Keillor’s radio show does a Clear Channel broadcast. That’s a good thing, for the record.
Somewhat surprisingly, the film’s lingering impression is as something of an elegy, an In Search of Lost Time for the St. Paul set. This is autumnal Altman, to be sure, confident, relaxed, and wise without cramming would-be profundities down your throat. It might be his Saraband, but it feels closer yet to, say, forty-something Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, another piece of exquisitely haunted nostalgia. Still crazy after all these years, possibly slightly senile, and remarkably in command of that unmistakable mise-en-scene, if A Prairie Home Companion isn’t a classic per se, it’s only because Altman isn’t ready to craft his swansong just yet.
A Prairie Home Companion is currently playing in theatres across the country.
By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2006-06-22