Thursday, August 2, 2012

Endings In Mediocrity; A Prairie Home Companion: The Motion Picture

The Good: Moments where the dry wit is funny, Casting (I suppose)
The Bad: Dull, Little in the way of character or character development, Dull
The Basics: As the radio show A Prairie Home Companion winds down, performers on it talk backstage, embodying the humor of Garrison Keillor.

In my travels, I've encountered a certain snobbery from NPR listeners who almost universally assume that those who do not enjoy the dry wit ramblings of radio entertainer Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion simply do not understand him. There's a highbrow assumption that if one does not find the show funny, the lack of humor is in poor, ignorant listener who does not appreciate classy, subtle humor. I "get" Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion's humor but it just doesn't entertain me. When I recently spelled Keillor's name wrong in my panning of Marie Antoinette (reviewed here!) and I was corrected by no less than three fellow reviewers within 12 hours, I decided my penance would be to sit through the cinematic version of A Prairie Home Companion.

Set on the night of the final episode of A Prairie Home Companion, the radio show is taping before a live theatrical audience as they present down-home stories of living in Wisconsin (though Lake Wobegon is never directly mentioned). While G.K. does his monologues and fake commercials, entertainers from the show talk backstage about the demise of the radio program. As well, security guard Noir is hunting a woman in a white trench coat who he believes might save the show. As the night winds down, old tensions between G.K. and ex-lover Yolanda Johnson flare, lewd cowboy entertainers Dusty and Left irk the standards and practices director, and Noir encounters the woman in white.

I "get" the idea of this film of A Prairie Home Companion; while the actual show is going on on-stage, the performers are telling stories and singing and such to present a parallel show backstage. While G.K. tells the stories up front to the radio audience, the film audience is treated to a similar show. It's not a terribly complicated concept. The thing is, it's not terribly exciting, either.

It takes a lot to make a radio show interesting to watch. It's why it's somewhat baffling that Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and others have simply stuck a camera in their studios at different points when making their radio presentations and pretended that makes the radio show a television series. It does not. It's watching a guy make radio. And it's about that entertaining.

A Prairie Home Companion, this movie, is not that unentertaining. Instead, the parallel stories go a long way to solving the problem of making a film out of people talking into microphones. Here, instead, the movie wisely neglects the theater performance as much as possible in favor of the backstage activity for as much of the movie as possible.

But therein, too, are the challenges of the movie; the backstage "antics" (if they can be called that) are the embodiment of the dry wit of the radio program. So, while Keillor describes mid-westerners in dry tones with subtle wit and little affect, backstage we see their antics. And for the most part, they're just entertainers telling one another stories in their particular idiom. So, for example, there's nothing extraordinary about Lola Johnson, Yolanda's daughter, as she talks in unemotive tones about her suicide poetry. And the very stereotypical way her aunt Rhonda and mother simply talk over her with generic feel-good sentiments falls as flat in the actualization as it does in Keillor's routine.

So, it's something we GET, it's just not something that's terribly entertaining and, in the litmus test for a movie, it's not interesting to watch. That's important for understanding why A Prairie Home Companion (the film) fails; it simply does not utilize the medium in a way that takes advantage of what cinematic presentation can do. I shudder to think of what the commentary track is like; with actors talking over people talking. I mean, truly, what do you do on a commentary track about a movie about people sitting around telling stories?! It must be surreal, listening to people tell stories about people telling stories.

My point here is that the film captures little entertainment value of the live performance of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. In fact, the only things we SEE that we would not have heard of the performance are G.K. ad-libbing his way through a monologue on duct tape, hindered by the improvisations of Yolanda, and Yolanda's expressions of anger and hurt toward G.K. as her old feelings resurface.

I did laugh once during this movie and that was when G.K. is talking to Lola about her conception, which was based on him abandoning her father at a rest stop, where he met Yolanda and had a chance encounter. He dryly declares, "You're the best mistake I never made." It's not enough to justify the 104 other minutes of the movie.

As for the acting, it's nothing to shout out about. The acting is more a function of decent casting than actual performances in this film. So, for example, if I was going to make a movie with singing cowboys telling one another dirty jokes, Woody Harrelson would seem to be a natural choice for one of them. And he fits the role, but it's nothing that challenges our expectations of Harrelson or him as an actor. Similarly, Lily Tomlin as a country singer and Kevin Kline as an out-of-work gumshoe all fit. No one is better cast for his role (save Keillor himself, essentially playing himself) than Tommy Lee Jones who enters the film late as the axeman, the new company's representative come to kill the show.

So, it's nothing new or special and it barely has the entertainment value of the radio show. It's a shame that Robert Altman's final directoral outing was something so limited. Then again, with its pervasive theme of endings, perhaps it is appropriate.

For other works with Maya Rudolph, be sure to check out my reviews of:
50 First Dates
As Good As It Gets


For other movie reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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