Storyteller’s story is a mixed success

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Storyteller’s story is a mixed success


My parents lived in Minneapolis before moving to L.A., so when I was growing up, every Saturday, no matter where the family was ― at home, in the car, at the office ― all radios were tuned to the distinctive voice of Garrison Keillor and “A Prairie Home Companion.” So for me and I imagine many other Americans, seeing the new Keillor-Robert Altman adaptation of the radio show into a film is partly a simple, pleasurable exercise in nostalgia. The unmistakable introduction of existential private eye Guy Noir ― “a dark night in St. Paul, a city that knows how to keep its secrets” ― the fake jingles, the groaner one-liners.
But of course Keillor, the self-appointed scribe of Midwest folk culture, obsessed with creating in a controlled environment a past that never really existed, isn’t comfortable letting us into the real backstage spaces of his radio program. Instead the film is a fictionalized version of the show with Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and Lindsay Lohan as the last remains of a singing family; John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson as singing cowboys; Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, who somehow ends up as a security guard at the “Companion” theater; an angel from God in a white trenchcoat; and many other performers real and fictionalized.
So instead of a simple documentary we have three films ― the variety show behind the mike; the story of family, love, life and death that takes place backstage; and the metafictional, supernatural story of the devil and Guy Noir (who is no Daniel Webster to be sure). The first two are relatively successful, based on entertaining music and jokes on the first count, and wonderful acting and directing on the second. But the third suffers from an air of dishonesty and artifice.
The most delightful part of the film (besides, possibly, the vulgar wisecracks of the cowboys) is the dynamic between Tomlin, Streep and Lohan, who puts in a surprisingly sophisticated performance. Streep as Lohan’s mother and Tomlin as her aunt reminisce about music and family ― meanwhile Lohan’s teenage obsession with death still leaves her unprepared to deal with the real thing.
But despite the appealing acting, the film’s effort at myth-making is a mixed success. It’s two very different things to hear the storyteller tell a story and to hear a story about the storyteller. When Keillor appears on screen periodically, the wisdom he dispenses seems self-serving and his efforts to bumble endearingly are just as fake as Powdermilk Biscuits and Beebopareebop Rhubarb Pie, only without the tongue-in-cheek wink at the camera (or microphone).
Keillor has built a career on the sighing-and-nodding-as-the-old-times-pass-us-by bit, but the story of the single radio station closing down “Companion” is disingenuous. Keillor’s show isn’t obsolete and outdated, it’s doing better than ever. Keillor is broadcast across the continent, he’s sold countless books and tapes, and I hear he’s even made a movie recently.
If Keillor’s show does close during his functional lifetime (which seems unlikely), it won’t be because the times they are a-changin’, but because the old showman went back to the same shtick one too many times.

A Prairie Home Companion
Comedy / English
105 min.
Now playing

by Ben Applegate
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