Wednesday, July 12, 2006

'Prairie' journeys back to the past

Every now and then a movie will grab you.

It tugs at the part of you that you ignore when it is convenient and wallow in when that seems the thing to do. All good art does that.

So it is with “A Prairie Home Companion,” Robert Altman’s fine new film based on the popular radio variety program.

But this isn’t a motion picture version of Garrison Keillor’s long-running show. No, it’s a metaphor for loving life as it once was, “a memorial to dreams,” as film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “that died but left the dreamers dreaming.”

It’s the last week of the show. A group of investors based in Texas has bought the Fitzgerald Theater, the Minnesota home to “The Prairie Home Companion,” and plans to turn it into a parking lot.

The show is a thing of the past anyway. A radio variety show – that went out, when, the 1940s?

But G.K., Keillor’s movie version of himself, is unmoved. He treats the show like any other. He won’t even pause to mention that a longtime cast member (L.Q. Jones) has passed away.

“I’m of an age if I started to do eulogies, I’d be doing nothing else.”

We meet the rest of the show’s cast – the weirdly charming Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), cowboy singers Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), stage manager Molly (Maya Rudolph), the backstage manager (Tim Russell) and, of course, the sound effects guy (Tom Keith). Together they have created this beautiful little anachronism, week after week for 30 years.

Altman’s film isn’t about much, really. Oh, there’s a thin plot here, but that’s not what’s important.

No, the film creeps along at its own pace, introducing us to unique characters and to a special world, and let’s us muse awhile on the past and what it all means. Altman’s technique, so infuriating in “Nashville,” works quite well here.

Because what this film really is about, you see, is nostalgia. It’s about remembering the past without becoming adrift in it, about enjoying the good times and being content to accept them for what they were.

Theater security agent Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) tries to alter the show’s fate. He asks the visiting angel (Virginia Madsen) to get rid of Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), who is representing the investors. She does. For a minute you think the show will survive.

Nope. Axeman dies, but the wrecking crew shows up anyway. Guy Noir plays a few final notes on the piano and carries off the bust of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald that sat in the theater’s luxury box.

Fitzgerald’s presence (his work was often about the pull of the past) seems fitting here – especially when the gang sings “Red River Valley” at the end of the final show. Or when the camera pauses one final moment on the cast as they enjoy one last late night dinner together in one of those all-night diners that doesn’t exist anymore.

The past has passed. Can’t get it back. But you’ll always have the memories. You’ll forever cherish the happy moments.

How does that song go?

“Come and sit by my side if you love me. Do not hasten to bid me adieu.

“Just remember the Red River Valley. And the cowboy who loved you so true.”

Remember we will. How on earth could we forget?

“A Prairie Home Companion” is now playing. It is rated PG-13.


Blogger Dewayne said...

In your review, you fail to mention that the movie also features teen party girl sensation Lindsey Lohan....

1:51 PM  

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