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News from Lake Wobegon: Summer
"A Prairie Home Companion"
It's time, in director Robert Alman's life, for a look at death. In one of his most scripted and structured movies (thanks to the pen of Garrison Keillor), it is so dark that an angel of deliverance (Virginia Madsen) paces the wings and backstages of the theatre that's about to close and bring an end to the ageless variety show that the humorist has kept alive for so long.
Not everyone can see her but those who do can engage her in conversation, ask who she's come for and, even, come on to her, as security guard (Kevin Kline) does with all the style of a Dashiell Hammett P.I., a role he emulates with some hilarity. Hey, the lady in white is a babe and, as the stumble-footed Guy Noir, Kevin Kline has found his metier.
The cast includes the backbone characters of Keillor's own show, and is peppered with enthusiastic newcomers out of the director's private and astounding catalogue of A-list stars who'd work for him for scale. Not that I know that for sure, but it's a safe bet. If Altman and Woody Allen ever collaborated on a movie, you'd have half of Hollywood tied up, with agents tearing their hair out because of the dip in their commissions. It would be a month in which they might have trouble meeting their rent. But, I drift.
The setup is that Keillor is putting on his last show before a conglomerate shutters it for other ventures. The capitalist behind this harsh business play is Axeman (shouldn't that be, The Axeman?), played by a morose Tommy Lee Jones who watches the shenanigans onstage from a dark, private box that reflects his soul.
Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) are an act, performing their duo cowboy routine on bad jokes with great zest and accomplished purpose while Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson commisserate in their dressing rooms over family history and Yolanda's daughter Lola's (Lindsay Lohan - "Mean Girls," "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen") dire poetry. These two together are a hoot, bringing repartee to a new Altmanesque level, which is exceeded in collaborative talent when it's their turn on stage. Yes, they can sing, showing a fine taste for the country feel and inflection standard for a Keillor lineup.
Lola in tee shirt and low-level rebelliousness hasn't ever sung on stage until circumstances (like the death of a beloved old-timer and a 6 minute shortfall in the show) gives her the opportunity to show what she can do in front of a mike. While Lohan's singing is all right, the wow she earns is later, when she shows up in a last scene dressed up to kill and the beauty of this girl puts any doubts about her appeal to rest.
Tom Keith does wonders as the Sound Effects Man to keep the many narrative stories of Keillor and his crew alive with the full resources of his audio craftsmanship. And, as for that, the evening is a testament to the Altman legacy. It's in good company with "The Company," "Kansas City," "Pret-a-Porter" and, my personal favorite, "Gosford Park."
That having been said, it should be noted for anyone who hasn't gotten on the Garrison Keillor wavelength before, that it's pretty low-key stuff, high on home-spun humor and very gentle (occasionaly risque') entertainment and no real drama. For a movie, its main draw is comfortable, skilled ensemble playing, a few chuckles, and an admirable humorist/satirist's unique audio world that Carl Sandburg would have felt comfortable in.
Altman, a director who has been nominated for 5 of his films was selected in the 2005 Academy Awards with an Honorary Oscar. That 5-picture no-win record is shared with Martin Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock.
The Soundtrack Album
A Prairie Home Companion With Garrison Keillor
30th Anniversary Season Celebration in 2004