A Prairie Home Companion (PG-13), directed by Robert Altman, is now playing at Little Theatres, Pittsford Cinemas, and Tinseltown
However different their particular arts, Garrison Keillor and Robert Altman make a perfect match. As the new movie A Prairie Home Companion demonstrates, Keillor's radio show provides an appropriate subject and venue for the interests and methods of one of our most accomplished directors. Although the program by its nature really needs no visual equivalent, the picture builds upon the familiar material to produce something that any of its millions of listeners should understand and appreciate.
Altman and Keillor, who wrote the screenplay, begin with an oddly weak and flimsy framework upon which they suspend a most attenuated plot. They choose one of Keillor's characters, the parody private eye Guy Noir, here played by Kevin Kline instead of his creator, to narrate as well as participate in the events of what will be the show's last night --- an evil corporation plans to demolish the theater to construct a parking lot. The bumbling Noir roams around backstage, linking characters and incidents, now and then interpreting the action, usually incorrectly, and actually accomplishes one successful deed at the end.
The real story of the picture, however, involves the variety of people who produce and appear in the show, which allows Altman to exercise his distinctive cinematic methods. The large cast of both show and film provides the director with his typical material, a number of disparate characters with their own stories, all of whom, under his supervision, collide, overlap, and intersect within the confined spaces of the stage and the backstage.
Aside from a few of Keillor's regulars among both the performers and the backstage workers, the large cast consists mostly of actors who impersonate the sort of singers and musicians who usually appear on A Prairie Home Companion. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin play Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, the last survivors of a country singing dynasty like the Carter Family, only not as famous and not as good. Veterans of shows in a thousand county fairs, church halls, and parking lots, they spend most of their time behind the scenes reminiscing about their past, much to the disgust of Yolanda's hostile daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan).
Typically, the camera moves fluidly through the cramped, crowded spaces of the dressing rooms, gliding from character to character, interrupting the various stories, picking up a dozen interactions, overhearing a dozen overlapping conversations. A cowboy duo, Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), compete, quarrel, and drive the stage manager crazy with their tendency to violate the decency regulations (their final act consists of a series of raunchy jokes with a guitar background). A mysterious woman who identifies herself as the Angel of Death wanders around looking for someone to lead up to Heaven --- as it turns out, she finds two companions for that final journey.
The presiding genius of the whole group, Garrison Keillor, plays himself quite well, displaying the same easy, humorous manner that has endeared him to audiences around the country. He announces the acts in the mellow baritone that seems made for radio and lends his sweet singing voice to a number of the musical acts. Though they may mourn the absence of the usual bulletin from LakeWobegon, fans should delight in his commercials for ketchup, duct tape, and Powdermilk Biscuits, "in the big blue box."
Despite two deaths and the dark finality of the show ending, A Prairie Home Companion reflects the funny, quirky, ironic, good natured tone of the radio program. Beyond the parody of several radio shows that the movie and the program suggest, Keillor's long, rambling, yarns in the movie emphasize his place in the great American oral tradition of the tall tale.
Just about everybody in the movie performs with zest and conviction. Meryl Streep, who apparently can do anything, makes an entirely credible country singer, for example, and Lily Tomlin and Woody Harrelson match her in conviction and energy. Beyond its display of Robert Altman's skill and Garrison Keillor's charm, the greatest joy of the movie derives from the sense that all the performers appear to be having the time of their lives, just enjoying the hell out of being in the film and on the radio.