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Index of 2006

An Inconvenient Truth
Big Bad Swim
Brokeback Mountain
Cinderella Man
The Departed
The DaVinci Code
Eron: The Smartest
Guys in the Room

Good Night and
Good Luck

Half Nelson
History of Violence
Hotel Rwanda
Little Miss Sunshine
Journey from the Fall
March of the Penguins
Million Dollar Baby
Prairie Home Companion
Star Wars III:
Revenge of the Sith

Thank You for Smoking
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
The Sea Inside
United 93
War of the Worlds
Walk the Line
World Trade Center

A Prairie Home Companion

A Review by Tom Condon, OP
(St. Martin Province)

Motion Picture Association rating: PG-13 for risque humor.
USCCB rating: A-III -- adults

A look at what goes on backstage during the last broadcast of America's most celebrated radio show, where singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty, a country music siren (Streep), and a host of others hold court.

I remember the 1989 comedy Postcards from the Edge starring Meryl Streep. I was greatly surprised with the film’s ending in which Meryl belts out a country song. Who would have thought, in addition to everything else, she could sing so well? After 17 years, she’s still got a great singer. I loved seeing Meryl singing with Garrison Keillor and Lily Tomlin in A Prairie Home Companion. If that’s all there was to the movie, it would be well worth seeing.

Fortunately, there’s much more to like about the film. Streep and Tomlin, as the singing Johnson Sisters, along with Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as Dusty and Lefty, “The Old Trailhands,” seem to be having the time of their lives. They join Keillor and many of the regulars of the long running NPRShow (the show in the film is supposed to be a fictional show based on Prairie Home Companion) singing, chatting, and telling bad jokes. I dare you not to break out in a wide grin as Harrelson and Reilly sing a bawdy song about awful jokes.

On one level, the film is a behind-the-scenes look at the fictional show on the occasion of its final broadcast from the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. The film unfolds in real time, as the radio show moves from act to act. If you’re familiar with the show, you will certainly catch the sponsorship of Powder Milk Biscuits and the Ketchup Advisory Board. Unfortunately, we don’t get to hear Keillor doing one of his wonderful monologues about life in Lake Woebegone.

As long as the movie stays with the onstage performers, it is very entertaining. However, the rest of the film is uneven. Kevin Kline plays Guy Noir, Private Eye, one of Keillor’s regulars. Virginia Madsen wanders backstage in a white trench coat as an Angel of Death. An elderly singer dies backstage after performing. Tommy Lee Jones appears as an “axe man” from Texas, representing the corporation which is ending the show’s run. Unfortunately, Kline, Masden, and Jones, accomplished actors all, never appear comfortable in their sketchy roles. I think they would have been happier singing and joking with Streep, Keillor, Harrelson, and the others.

The large cast is directed by the legendary Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park). For almost 40 years, Altman has made his reputation guiding large casts through multiple story lines with his trademark overlapping dialogue. In Prairie Home, Altman is more successful here with the performers on stage than off. Despite its unevenness, Prairie Home is beautifully photographed, and always enjoyable to watch, even in its weaker moments.

Altman and Keillor (who wrote the screenplay) have made a film celebrating the final performance of an old fashioned live radio program in an American Idol age. Prairie Home has for decades celebrated the gentle humor of its idiosyncratic Minnesota roots. In its focus on the particular context of small town Minnesotans, Keillor is a master of finding the universal themes of the human condition. Prairie Home celebrates bluegrass and country and gospel music over the mainstream generic music on most radio stations today. I find that Prairie Home is one of the few places in which there is any talk about religion and the spiritual and the spiritual life, without a cynical or fundamentalist attitude. It’s also one of the places where politics and values enter into the conversation, both seriously and humorously.

What is the meaning of the Angel of Death who hovers over the movie? I think that, for Keillor and Altman, the Angel announces the death of a show that celebrates the ordinary, idiosyncratic, Midwestern people in a world that celebrates the media-made celebrity.

As the radio program comes to its final moment, the cast comes together for a poignant rendition of Red River Valley. When they discover that a few moments remain, Lindsay Lohan, as Meryl Streep’s daughter, makes her radio debut singing Frankie and Johnny (even though she forgets the words). Keillor refuses shuns farewell speeches and long goodbyes. For him, a spirited rendition of a folk song is a fitting farewell. Katie Couric and Star Jones Reynolds, and other celebrities should take note.

Tom Condon, OP

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