Novelist Douglas Coupland once speculated about the
existence of a Sheraton Enzyme that kicks in at age 28 so that travelers
can no longer imagine sleeping on friends' floors.
Similarly, there may be a Garrison Keillor Enzyme. After a lifetime of
echoing Homer Simpson's baffled response to the dry wit of Keillor's
public radio variety show "A Prairie Home Companion" -- "Be more funny!"
-- I now find myself musing, "Hey, this guy's not half bad …"
For most of us, acting our age requires an awkward improvisation for
which we've tried to avoid preparing. Keillor, however, has always had
the soul of a 63-year-old, and now that he's finally attained that age
on the calendar, he's the Grand Master at it.
The Mark Twain of Minnesota has at last made a movie out his "Prairie
Home Companion," which he's been broadcasting live for two hours every
Saturday, 32 weeks per year since 1974, when he got the inspiration
while writing a profile of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry for The New
Yorker. The low-key film version is merely a fictionalized rendition of
his show, with lots of unfashionable old songs like "Frankie & Johnnie"
and a little backstage drama about how after tonight's performance the
series is being shut down by a soulless Texas corporation.
In a bit of Blue State humor, such as it is, one character gripes,
"Don't make fun of Texans just because they talk funny, their eyes don't
focus, and the flesh is rotting from their bones." Keillor used to write
an advice column in Salon, in which his primary message was "to bust
loose." Good advice, I'm sure, for the gentle souls who look to Garrison
Keillor as a role model, but perhaps not a reliable general worldview.
Minnesotans like Keillor tend to be politically liberal because they are
so personally conservative by nature and nurture that they can't imagine
anybody else might need to be restrained by law or tradition. The more
hell-raising Texans, in contrast, take a less softheaded view.
In reality, "A Prairie Home Companion" is a financial gusher, allowing
Keillor and his third wife to own the finest home in St. Paul. As I
write, Keillor's road show is playing the 17,000 seat Hollywood Bowl, of
all places, where the $120 tickets are sold out.
What little tension the movie generates emerges from the sentimental
singers' attempts to persuade Keillor to say a few words of eulogy to
the audience. The resolutely withdrawn host, though, feels that
mentioning the cancellation would betray his blandly chipper Midwestern
upbringing: "I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and
To lower the whippersnapper index even further, Keillor persuaded
octogenarian Robert Altman to direct. Critics still intoxicated by the
auteur theory have struggled to find something profound to say about how
this film encapsulates Altman's long (and, to be frank, erratic) career,
but, let's face it, this is Keillor's movie, not Altman's, although the
director does a perfectly fine job.
"A Prairie Home Companion" turns out to be that rarity in Altman's
roster: neither a near-classic, such as "Gosford Park" or "Nashville,"
nor a dud, like "Dr. T and the Women." It's good clean fun for
middle-aged white folks, although not much more. Unfortunately, the
budget was too cheap to leave the theatre, so there's no visit to
Keillor's mythical small town, Lake Wobegon, where all the children are
Altman's prestige rounded up a first-rate cast to play Keillor's
characters, including Kevin Kline as the Phillip Marlowe-inspired Guy
Noir (to whom Kline adds a touch of Inspector Clouseau), and Woody
Harrelson and John C. Reilly as the lonesome cowboys Dusty and Lefty.
Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are a sister act, Yolanda and Rhonda
Johnson. Streep no longer has quite the bravura singing voice that she
spectacularly unveiled in "Ironweed" and "Postcards from the Edge,"
which inspired much concern among her rivals over whether there was
anything she couldn't do, but she can still sell a song.
Virginia Madsen of "Sideways" portrays an angel who is miffed at Keillor
because she died in a car crash caused by laughing too hard at his
penguin joke -- one penguin says, "You look like you're wearing a
tuxedo," and the other replies, "What makes you think I'm not?" -- which
turned out not to be terribly funny now that she has all eternity to
think about it.
Rated PG-13 for risqué humor.
to The American Conservative
(because I don't post my magazine reviews online until long after
the films have come and gone)