The Mild, Mild Midwest

A Prairie Home Companion

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, July 3, 2006

 

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 denying it."

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 above average.
 
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.

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