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Issue Date:  July 14, 2006

Relaxed, lighthearted and sweet

'Prairie Home Companion' is witty, elegiac; 'Nacho Libre' a lowbrow success


Most readers will need no urging to sample the pleasures of director Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion since they already depend on Garrison Keillor’s Saturday public radio show for the kindly, humorous sermon they don’t get on Sunday. The new movie doesn’t include Mr. Keillor’s weekly news from Lake Woebegon, but director Altman has caught the casual spirit of his source, concocting a nostalgically lighthearted movie about its fictional last performance, held at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn.

Based on Keillor’s screenplay, “A Prairie Home Companion” tells a relaxed tale of how some wealthy Texas Christians are about to close the show down, having bought both the theater and the radio station. Its running time is devoted largely to musical interludes by singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), as well as the Johnson sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), aided by Mr. Keillor’s own baritone and sound effects concocted by Tom Keith.

Mr. Altman weaves together the backstage and onstage narratives, repeating his familiar directorial sleight of hand, moving from character to character as conversations blend. Much of the film is narrated by Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a regular character on weekly “Prairie” broadcasts, who serves here as security guard for the show. Though his pretended sophistication is mostly comic, he is the one most aware of the fleeting presence of an angel of death (Virginia Madsen), a beautiful blond who adds an elegiac tone to the overall proceedings.

Non-“Prairie” regulars may complain correctly of the lack of narrative tension but are bound to enjoy Mr. Keillor’s advertisements for duct tape, rhubarb pie and Powdermilk biscuits. The amazing Meryl Streep fits right into the swing of things, singing amazingly well, bickering sweetly with her sister, and worrying about her lovely, depressed daughter (Lindsay Lohan), who manages to sing her own song near the end.

“Axeman” (Tommy Lee Jones), a representative of the Texas Christians, explains his group’s decision to end the show: “Companion” isn’t “up-to-date.” True, of course, but this is exactly what Mr. Keillor has always gloried in. He even refuses to offer a final tribute to his gently meandering program. “Every show is your last show,” he insists, though he knows that “Companion” is primarily a Midwestern attack on media packaging.

Mr. Altman hasn’t made a great movie but one that helps us relax even as it taps a surprisingly elegiac tone. With its improvisation, missed cues and shaggy-dog stories, “Companion” is a witty reminder of the unpretentiousness of old-time popular entertainment.

Nacho Libre was written by Jerusha and Jared Hess, the wife-husband team also responsible for “Napoleon Dynamite,” and Mike White, who did the script for “Chuck and Buck.” Director Jared Hess wanted to create a lowbrow comedy. First weekend receipts suggest he has a success.

The film mostly depends on the strenuous efforts of Jack Black as Nacho, who doesn’t mind squeezing his overweight frame into tight pants in the hope that people will laugh. The comedy may be unsophisticated, but Black, wearing mask and cape, works so strenuously to solicit our affection many will find him irresistible.

Nacho, who claims to have both Mexican and Scandinavian forebears, was orphaned as a child and brought up in a monastery in Oaxaca. He now works there as a cook, providing the resident orphans their daily beans and chips. Underneath his humble demeanor he genuinely cares for the children. He also knows the food is terrible. Suddenly he’s introduced to the beautiful Sister Encarnación (Ana de La Reguera), who has come to supervise the orphans. Though we know Nacho is no romantic hero, we may worry that we’re about to get a pseudo-Mexican version of Bing Crosby’s “Bells of St. Mary’s.” Though Mr. Black later sings a heartfelt song for Sister, his ambition lies in the completely different field of the luchadores, the masked wrestlers who offer their devoted followers an all-encompassing macho image.

Becoming a wrestler means sneaking out of the monastery and working with Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez), his slim partner, in fights downtown. The latter, of course, are occasions for wearing wonderfully colorful tights and for Nacho and Esqueleto to get thoroughly beaten up. Fortunately, they at least get paid by the promoters and are able to bring back real food for the orphans at the monastery and an extra helping for Sister Encarnación.

There is, of course, some cruelty mixed up in the comedy of such fighting, but it is taken no more seriously than Mr. Black’s Mexican-accented English, equally unreal. Though the succession of wrestling defeats sets up higher stakes for a final movie bout, the parallel plot of Nacho and Sister Encarnación remains wonderfully discreet. It hardly matters that we don’t really believe in Nacho’s ultimate wrestling triumph. It’s enough that Sister gives him an increasingly broad smile and that he is idolized by at least one of the orphans. “Nacho Libre” may be a ridiculously disposable comedy, but it’s hard to resist its underlying sweetness.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2006

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