With an all star cast (Kevin Kline, Meryl Strep, Lilly Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Masden Lindsey Lohan, John C. Reily, Tommy Lee Jones etc.), and the ole boy himself, Garrison Keillor, and a reenactment of an episode of the Prairie Home Companion in the offing, the heavy odds would be on this being a lot of fun. And indeed it is. Just watching Meryl Streep and Lilly Tomlin play country singing sisters, and Kevin Kline as Guy Noir the bumbling security guard was worth the price of admission. It is too bad the moguls have decided on only a limited release for this movie.
What you didn't figure on in this movie was a long meditation of death. But in fact that is precisely what you get in this movie. Virginia Masden plays quite literally the angel of death. But had she come to help ring down the curtain on the Prairie Home Companion?
The plot is quite simple-- the Fitzgerald theater in St. Paul is about to be imploded, putting an end to the venue for the long running radio show. It has been bought by a born again Texas axe man, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who thinks the show needs to end and another parking lot should be put up (you can sing the chorus of Joni Mitchell's classic 'Big Yellow Taxi' here--- "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot...')
So it is no surprise that the cast, and Garrison are in a melancholy and reflective mood. Nevertheless they must make merry, and do so by singing everything from bluegrass, to country, to spirituals to old Gospel classics, to western cowboy songs. Indeed most of the movie involves singing, and we discover that most of these big name stars can sing, and so can Keillor as well, who plays himself of course. For somewhat under two hours we watch them perform, follow the behind the scenes high jinks, and generally have a good time.
Keillor, in good Lake Wobegon fashion reminds us of how Keillor sees the nature of the upper midwest. People expect it to be cold, they expect death, and if joy breaks out for too long they feel like something is wrong and this too will pass. In short they range from Stoics to fatalists to glass is half empty folks, and even the young, portrayed by Lindsey Lohan are busy writing poems about suicide and death.
Yet they enjoy fiddling as Lake Woebegon freezes, and if this is a death spiral dance, it sure is entertaining to watch. "Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow..." seems to be the theme here. It is interesting though that when a cast member actually dies back stage during the show, Keillor insists the show must go on, and he refuses to do a live eulogy to ole Claude Akers the cowboy singer. It seems that some cope with death by avoidance of the subject, others by obsessing about it.
There is a bit of baudy humor in this movie served up by Harrelson and Reilly (e.g.--- "News bulletin, a large shipment of Viagra has been stolen"; Harrelson asks--- 'Who do they suspect?' Answer--- "hardened criminals!") so you probably don't want to take the kids to this one, but there are many good laughs in the movie, even as death is being mused on.
What one can learn from this movie is a good deal about the heartland of America, far from beautiful weather, and gorgeous oceans. The movie has all the charm of an earlier era when people actually mainly listened to the live radio shows, rather than turning on XM radio or shock jock radio talk shows. What one learns immediately is that we have mostly lost the art of musing over a leisurely hour about topics like death--- and of course Grandma's Powdermilk biscuits, interspersed with some corny jokes.
In fact the show's humor reminded me of a fellow Charlottean's humorous comic strip--- Kudzu. In it there is a character named the Rev. Will B. Dunn. In one strip he is speaking to the church's ladies circle, and he says "Personally I have no problems with women and their roles in the church." And then patting his paunch he adds-- "its women and their biscuits that I have problems with." You catch my drift....
I really loved this movie on so many levels, and it made me wistful for a time when we took time to really listen for an hour to others singing from the heart, speaking with wit, tongue firmly in cheek, and of course doing the American thing-- advertising everything on the planet from biscuits to laxatives.
It reminded me of why country music really does speak to so many people in the heartland-- they are living those songs, and they are painfully true, whether you are singing "Red River Valley" or Frankie and Johnny" or "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling". This is the music that speaks to everyday life, and gives it a spiritual or humorous twist, with a little moralizing thrown in for good measure. I can recommend this movie for adults, but be prepared to smile and grin and tap your toes. If you're too Stoic for that, then you belong at Lake Woebegon.