Issue Date: July 14, 2006
Relaxed, lighthearted and sweet
'Prairie Home Companion' is witty, elegiac; 'Nacho Libre' a lowbrow success
By JOSEPH CUNNEEN
Most readers will need no urging to sample the pleasures of director Robert Altmans A Prairie Home Companion since they already depend on Garrison Keillors Saturday public radio show for the kindly, humorous sermon they dont get on Sunday. The new movie doesnt include Mr. Keillors 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 Keillors 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. Keillors 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. Keillors 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 groups decision to end the show: Companion isnt 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 hasnt 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 doesnt 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 hes 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 were about to get a pseudo-Mexican version of Bing Crosbys Bells of St. Marys. 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. Blacks 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 dont really believe in Nachos ultimate wrestling triumph. Its 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 its hard to resist its underlying sweetness.
Joseph Cunneen is NCRs regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is SCUNN24219@aol.com.
National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2006
|Copyright © The
National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd.,
Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.
TEL: 816-531-0538 FAX: 1-816-968-2280 Send comments about this Web site to: firstname.lastname@example.org