An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


                 Robert Altman beckons, and they come.  Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, Lindsay Lohan, and John C. Reilly join the regulars of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” in a jackpot of a movie.  This cast, with a big wink in its collective eye, has caught the flavor of country humor and country music and has a whale of a time delivering it to a delighted audience.  If Streep and Tomlin are not the first pair you would think of as a country musical duet, think again.  They’re terrific.

                Altman’s camera moves in on the landscape around St. Paul, Minnesota until it closes slowly on Mickey’s Diner, freezing a frame that becomes the Edward Hopper painting.  One diner emerges – Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), under-utilized head of security for Garrison Keillor’s radio show and narrator of the movie.  Guy fancies himself as a ‘40s detective who dresses and talks the lingo of the time only to have the suave exterior he affects punctured by his own awkward bumbling.  Watch for his scene with the telephone.

                Down the street from the diner is the theater named for that other St. Paul fellow, Scott Fitzgerald.  It is at the Fitzgerald that the movie unfolds at Keillor’s chosen pace in the lowest of keys.  It’s rather like taking a stroll to the neighborhood store while noticing every single thing in your peripheral vision:  a flower here, a cracked pavement there, a dead branch, a cloud up there, a pile of busy ants – and suddenly there you are there, with the things of ordinary life imprinted on your brain.  From backstage at the Fitzgerald, the performers take a leisurely stroll upstairs to center stage.  By the time they sing, we have absorbed the details of their lives in the leisurely flow of backstage chatter.  We know them now. 

                Garrison Keillor, master storyteller, wrote this screenplay whose premise is the purchase of the theater by a heartless Texas businessman (Tommy Lee Jones).  Tonight is the last show. 

                For regulars Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), the country songs come as easily as eating breakfast; they assume their stage personas as they step before the mike and leave them there with the last note.  Lindsay Lohan, in an immensely appealing performance, plays Streep’s daughter Lola, a jaded, but not really, teenager who writes poetry about suicide that catches the attention, but not really, of her flaky mother.   After being asked by their stage manager to end the show with a proper song, Lefty (John C. Reilly) and Dusty (Woody Harrelson) the two dependable cowboys with 8-year-old minds, unleash “Bad Jokes,” a wholly seductive laugh song.      

                This movie was made on a five week location shoot in St. Paul in the real diner and the real theater, a large ingredient in the final exuberance.  Without a single miscasting, you can count on an evening of lighthearted laughter.  Who among us can resist that?


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