A Prairie Home Companion

Some movies I just don’t get.

I see the trailers, browse the ads, check out the internet scuttlebutt, and by the time I finally get around to seeing some of these movies, I’m left speechless, wondering what in the world the big deal was.

A Prairie Home Companion is one of these.

I lived in Minnesota for five years (ten if you count the first five years of my life too, which I do, but not when considering pop culture awareness) and grew to develop a fondness for Minnesota culture:  their love for the outdoors, their friendliness, their practicality, and their sense of Norwegian history.  However, for whatever reason, I never listened to a full episode of Garrison Keillor’s weekly radio show A Prairie Home Companion.  Through the snippets I have heard over the years, it seems to be a variety show centered on Minnesota culture, with frequent references to a fictional Lake Woebegon and heaping with nostalgia for a time when people actually sat in their living rooms and listened to radio shows like this one.

What Robert Altman’s film does, to varying degrees of success, is fully capture the essence of Keillor’s bittersweet radio show while also exploring what it means to have an ending to various things:  youth, friendships, relationships, radio shows, even life itself.  And to that end, I get it.  I understand that through Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin’s characters tearfully singing what will be their final song on air, we are reminded ourselves of times when we have been forced to say goodbye.  I get that John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson sing dirty songs about life on the cowboy trail we are meant to think back on better days and things long gone.  And I also get that Keillor’s pragmatism throughout the movie (which takes place virtually in real time during the course of an episode of the radio show) is a lesson for all of us:  things change, and we might as well move on and not dwell on the past.  We should remember the past, but not, as Keillor says, “be told to remember it.”

And all these lessons are well and good.  But as a movie, as a piece of celluloid entertainment, it just doesn’t work.  Watching people sing songs for an hour and a half, with very little actual plot holding it all together (Kevin Kline’s bumbling inspector, Guy Noir, supposedly sent to investigate the corporate deal that is bringing an end to the show, provides the barest of narrative threads for us to follow) is a tough thing to do.  Several times I turned to my wife with a puzzled look on my face and said “This is one weird movie.”

And so it is.  While the messages are nice, the presentation needs work.  But then, perhaps Altman, a celebrated director in what turned out to be the final movie of his career, was simply looking back on life through his camera lens and letting the very talented actors in this movie show us what it means to have endings brought upon us.  Perhaps the best part of the whole movie was the very end, when Lola Johnson, played surprisingly well by Lindsay Lohan, joins the cast of the radio show at Mickey’s Diner several years after their show has ended, and offers some forthright and rather unsolicited financial advice to her mother.  We see in her mother’s confusion that life has moved on, and some things were meant to end.  Perhaps Altman knew this too.

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