Depending on your appreciation of Keillor’s conflation of schmaltzy cornpone and dry, sly sting (which brings out, in the actors, ham on wry), either a dreamy afternoon in good company or a forceful lug-wrench to the soft area between your forehead and your ear. I fall in between: I am a sucker when Keillor stops singing and wanders around flatfooted, mumbling out yarns and sidestepping emotional reactions; I’m equally smitten with the extravagant “Midwestern” dramatics of Meryl Streep’s Johnson sister or the equally outsized snap of Lily Tomlin’s more bilious, bibulous Johnson sister. I also happily confess to loving John Reilly and Woody Harrelson shamelessly twanging and slanging away in the wings.
I’m less keen on the many false notes struck by the framing narratives (an odd misplaced wandering death angel, a vision more in keeping with Michael Landon than, say, Bergman; a dull plot about the end of the show, and a mean old capitalist from Texas, ably and acutely played by Tommy Lee Jones without one hint of whimsy but also lacking any hint of dramatic purpose); the waste of Kevin Kline and Maya Rudolph and a few other stray supporters, left drifting with the wisp of character and comic “bits”. And I almost always turn off the radio “Prairie” (if Kris will let me) whenever anyone starts singing; that ain’t my cup of joe, and it wears about as poorly when seen as when heard.
So–for us Altman completists, there are some nice touches, and it’s another in his portraits of ensemble communities, dealing with death and heartache. But it’s a lot more ambling and shambling, a cousin to the amiable but underwhelming The Company and Kansas City. There are a couple wonderful shots: Kline closing a cigarette case on his desk, to reveal in the deep background, previously hidden by the case’s cover, Virginia Madsen; some nice bits with Jones watching the show, a bust of Scott Fitzgerald watching Jones.
Streep can actually sing, so that was enjoyable. I don’t regret seeing it, but I wish that I’d come across it some gray afternoon on tv, surprised and caught up. It’s better than a nap, and (for me) preferable to a mutant showdown. Your call.