Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Rob Altman: Prairie Home Companion

As the recipient of a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars this past March, director Rob Altman (Nashville, MASH) received a temporary spotlight which made his next film A Prairie Home Companion that much more eagerly anticipated. Due to the laws governing summer blockbusters, that anticipation didn’t lead to much of an audience. Released in early June, Prairie Home Companion opened to only 760 theaters nationwide (by comparison, the Pixar hit Cars opened the same weekend in 3,985) and only made $20 million but it was arguably one of the best films to come out this past summer.

The biggest misconception about Robert Altman's Prairie Home Companion was that it was a film about Garrison Kiellor. It's also the source of its brilliance.

Garrison Keillor is currently the host of a popular Minnesota-based radio show of the same name that appeals to Midwestern sensibilities. The show-within-a-show is infused with backstage drama as an axe man from a corporation in Texas (Tommy Lee Jones) is on his way to the studio to shut it down at the end of the night’s broadcast. That will make this the show's last broadcast. While Altman transplants Kiellor and his show to the big screen in pretty much the same format, the beauty of the film is how the director isn't taking us behind the scenes of the Garrison Kiellor show as much as he's using the radio host to tell his own story. Altman uses Kiellor and his radio show as a springboard for his own contemplations on life, art, and death during his twilight years. Those familiar with the director that helped usher American cinema into a new era in the 1970s and has had a few dry streaks in his career since, might be able to draw connections between Kiellor's character and Altman as two Midwesterners who might be considered acquired tastes and who are past their prime. It's a credit to Altman's sense of vision as a director and storyteller that those who are unfamiliar with Garrison Kiellor might not believe he actually exists because that's how naturally he fits into the story.

Most films by Altman have a great ensemble and this is no exception. From the dirty jokes of John C. Riley and Woody Harrelson's singing cowboys to Saturday Night Live's Maya Rudolph as a stagehand being driven to insanity by Garrison Kiellor's aloofness to Kevin Kline's bumbling private eye, humor and color come from multiple directions. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep add their talents to the mix as the singing Johnson sisters and Lindsay Lohan holds her own as Streep's slightly off-kilter daughter. The film also boasts a great selection of country and folk music sung by many of the film's stars in addition to the radio show's house band. A Prairie Home Companion is a multilayered piece of work that plays like a lightweight breezy afternoon.

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