Monday, November 19, 2012

Cinema 2006: The heart of the heart of the country

If you are looking for a different favorite holiday season family movie, Robert Altman’s love-filled flick “A Prairie Home Companion” from 2006 might be just the thing, that is, if you can stand corny jokes, if you like musical performances (all the actors did their own singing before a live audience), and if you treasure disappearing Americana.

This PG-13 movie takes its name from the weekly hootenanny that has aired for decades on National Public Radio. You have probably heard of it and of Garrison Keillor, the radio show’s creator and host. Altman, a prolific American film auteur, died the same year “A Prairie Home Companion” was released; it was the last movie he directed.

Altman’s swan song is a heart-warming gem of a film that includes schmaltz and the sublime. From a screenplay by Keillor, it delivers a kaleidoscope of America's homespun cultural heritage, while showcasing toe-tapping traditional music and humorous vignettes that reflect the oral tradition.

Some critics panned the movie when it was released, aping the initially negative attitude of one of its characters, Lola Johnson (Lindsay Lohan), the bored teen, whose mom (Meryl Streep) and aunt (Lily Tomlin) both sing on the show, which is performed before a live audience. Lola sulks backstage, but is eventually won over by the healing magic of a loving and loquacious family, not to mention a whole lot of banjo and mandolin music too wonderful for even a jaded teen (in a musical family) to resist. By the time the movie, and the live radio show that is its subject, end, Lola has come on stage to bring down the house with a lyrically butchered but tuneful rendition of “Frankie and Johnny.” Not since Ella mangled “Mack the Knife” in Berlin in 1960 has a song lyric suffered so much for our entertainment.

In “A Prairie Home Companion” Altman often uses extreme close-ups of his stars in the tradition of an earlier era in American cinema. He also films many scenes in deep focus, lending them the visual quality of a live stage performance. The overlapping dialog and throw-away lines heighten the auditory sense of realism and point to the potential tragedy of losing the lore that has come down through the generations.

Streep’s role is one of a survivor, a veteran third-string talent well past her glory days. The New Jersey-born actress, who was 56 years old when she made this movie, nonetheless embodies the role with the freshness of an ingenue.

Be advised an undercurrent of melancholy runs through the film – the story tells of the last performance of the long-running show that is being canceled, and how each member of the troupe deals with the end or doesn’t. There is also a death from old age. Halfway through the film, the story threatens to sink into bathos, but the characters never succumb to sadness and neither will you.

There are plenty of pratfalls, courtesy of Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), the house detective at the Fitzgerald Theater where the show is performed and broadcast over the radio to all corners of the nation. Many aspects of American popular culture are represented, including Noir’s aptly named shamus (whose on-screen incarnation by Kline owes more to Maxwell Smart than Mike Hammer), and a couple of heterosexual cowboys played with unshaven élan by John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson. There is even a dining car greasy spoon, Mickey’s Diner (“Free Parking”), where the opening and closing scenes take place.

A mysterious “Woman in White” (Virginia Madsen) moves through the movie as if she were looking for a different soundstage, and Kline’s slapstick is unnecessary, but these quirks cannot detract from a company of performers led by a man who wears red socks. Keillor is present-day America’s great storyteller, with a voice like a favorite chair, well worn and relaxing.

“A Prairie Home Companion” is a movie about people being strong when faced with the commonplace adversity and daily disappointments we call life. It is a movie about family. And it is a movie full of personal spirituality.

One character in the movie laments that after the show is taken off the air there will be nothing left on the radio but “people yelling at you and computers playing music.” To grab 105 minutes of respite from that, watch “A Prairie Home Companion” with your family this holiday season. You might just start a new tradition.

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