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June 12, 2006 - Image 10

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Publication:
Michigan Daily Summer Weekly, 2006-06-12

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10 - The Michigan Daily - Monday, June 12, 2006
Altman's latest effort a
good 'Companion'

By Andrew Klein
Managing Arts Editor
When word got out that director Robert Alt-
man ("M*A*S*H," "Gosford Park") was to team
up with the professor of down-home, campy
humor Garrison Keil-
lor (radio's 32-year- A Prairie Home
old "A Prairie Home Companion
Companion") himself,
a couple of concerns At the Michigan
emerged: If the film Theater, Showcase
would be over-inundat- and Quality 16
ed by Altman's highly Picturehouse
individualistic, love-it-
or-hate-it directorial style, and also, so late in
his life, if he would he finally bring home an
Oscar (he's been nominated for five).
The fictional account of a variety radio
show is modeled, of course, from Keillor's
own radio program, comprised of numerous
folk and bluegrass performances, including
many commercial jingles.
The plot pivots around the show's last per-
formance (due to a corporate buy-out), and
only those involved are aware of it. As the
show slowly winds down to its inevitable end,
drama builds around death, a love affair from
the past, the possibility of saving the show
and Virginia Madsen ("Sideways") as an
angel with an unknown mission.
Those who were inspired to catch Altman's
latest because of sentimentality toward the
actual radio show (such as myself) won't find
complete satisfaction. In tandem with the
hilarious material mined from the show, an
absurdist, film noir twist is added. The story
is told through the eyes of private detective

Guy Noir (Kevin Kline, "De-Lovely"), hired
to handle security for the show's final airing.
Opening the film with a private-eye-in-
a-diner-spoof monologue, there, is at times,
an uncomfortable incongruity between the
relaxed humor of Garrison Keillor (playing
himself) and the purposely stereotypical noir
characters.
Although not a "mockumentary," the film's
folk/bluegrass context - as well as its dead-
pan, surreal humor - is reminiscent of
Christopher Guest's "A Mighty Wind." Char-
acteristic of Altman, the film keeps a slow,
steady pace from the beginning (although
not as grueling as 1993's "Short Cuts"). Even
though the mounting subplot of Virginia
Madsen's mysterious presence keeps viewers
on their toes, the memorable material comes
from superb combinations of characters.
Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl
Streep, "Angels in America" and Lily Tom-
lin, "Orange County") are two of the most
consistent laughs in the film. Lindsay Lohan
("Mean Girls"), as Yolanda's daughter Lola,
doesn't overdo her role as the adolescent
who writes suicidal poetry amid the revel-
ry around her. Keillor can only be himself;
nothing more is needed. His stories and jokes
are in and of themselves time capsules of
an older, different America. His humor is a
genre by itself.
Woody Harrelson ("The Thin Red Line")
and John C. Reilly ("The Aviator") play two
singing cowhands and provide genial, if trite,
comedic relief. Their last tune, "Bad Jokes," is
a neverending motley of (you guessed it) hilar-
iously awful jokes "Why do they call is PMS?
Because Mad Cow was already taken").
Altman seems comfortable throughout the
film. Non-conventional cinematography is the

6

6

"There's something In your teeth, and that hat just has to go."

norm, but not so overwhelming as to appear
overtly indie. As expected, it's clear that he
lets his actors deviate from the script, result-
ing in dialogues that border on the tedious but
maintain a voyeuristic edge. Scenes where
Streep's character waxes nostalgic over her
long-gone affair with Keillor sometimes push
the envelope of patience.
But any loss of momentum is immediately
recovered in the performance scenes, where no
overdubbing is present. Streep has an honest-
to-God solid voice that fits well, sometimes
humorously, with Tomlin's scratchy alto. And
Lohan, it seems, could carve a few more pay-
checks for herself in the country-music busi-
ness. Finally convinced to sing one of her own
songs at the end of the show. she tells the band

to play a blues in any key, and proceeds to belt
out an extremely catchy, honky-tonk tale of a
woman murdering her husband.
It's unclear if Altman is attempting to draw
any meaning from such an odd combination
of genres (including religious allegory). The
film's cathartic moments come from off-
hand comments from Keillor ("I want to be
remembered, but I don't want to tell people to
remember me") and interactions between the
show's principals.
This may be Altman's last film. As Keillor
put it to a distraught performer, "Every show is
your last show." There are optimistic plans for
another feature in 2007, but this is a near-per-
fect late-career film for Altman, who is giving
as much gusto to his work as he ever has.

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