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I've always been a fan of the great Robert Altman, but I've never approached Garrison Keillor. Keillor's always been held as the gold standard of literate Heartland humor that's too genteel for its own good (think Homer Simpson's cry of "Be more funny!"). Leave it to the two of them to gleefully take the piss out of that image with gusto and give us an underappreciated gem.
Keillor's foundation and Altman's improv skill lull you in with the promise of good, Christian values and old-time folk music, exactly what Prairie evokes in polite conversation. Then it hits you with the truth of how that squeaky-cleanliness is produced. Keillor's ready to say his farewells while the (thankfully still-extant) Fitzgerald Theater is set for demolition, Maya Rudolph's PA treats it as another gig, the censor clamps down on the singers, and Tommy Lee Jones's axeman looms to shutter the show over its perceived obsolescence.
Decorating this Grand Finale are the Johnson sisters (and daughter) remembering sisters lost (the "shoplifted donut" story is wonderfully tragi-comic), Guy Noir suspiciously traipsing the stage as he does, a mysterious femme-fatale fan, and the cowboy duo of Dusty and Lefty. The cowboys, played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, are my favorites of the whole ensemble because of two scenes: when they musically stick it to Guy Noir over his shaming the pregnant PA, and stick it to the censor with their "Bad Jokes" duet.
Great performances abound in this simply beautiful movie. It's a testament to Prairie Home's longevity that it never needed an edge or topicality. Its humor prefers to playfully nibble at you, and Altman pokes fun at Southern show-business just like he skewered it in Nashville. As the swan song of a great director, a sendup of Keillorís playful self, and a gathering of Folk-Gospel music pride, the Prairie Home movie is a resounding joy of storytelling that loves its audience, even as the last curtain falls at the Fitzgerald. Highly recommended.
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