A little oddity on the 'Prairie'

Robert Altman directs 'A Prairie Home Companion,' based on Garrison Keillor's radio show.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

The artistic union of Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor was inevitable. Altman has always had a great affinity for making movies about the mores of America, its sorrows and cynicism, and Keillor, in his long-running syndicated radio show and the many books he has spun off from it, has - with less cynicism - mined a similar patch of terrain.

The movie "A Prairie Home Companion," which Altman ("The Player," "Gosford Park") directed from a script by Keillor, that incorporates many of the elements of the radio show, is an odd duck even by the usual odd standards by which we have come to know Altman.

For one thing, the movie isn't really about the actual radio show, even though it goes by the same name and features many of the show's regulars. Keillor is referred to as G.K. and the show, far from being a hit, is a small-time affair heard locally each week in St. Paul, Minn. Worse, it's about to be canceled. As a result of a corporate changeover, the Saturday night show we are experiencing both on and off stage is its last. The cast members know this, but not their loyal fans in the audience.

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For this conceit to take hold, we have to suspend disbelief and imagine that the well-oiled "Prairie Home Companion" on display is not, in fact, the same one that legions of followers worldwide tune into each week. Otherwise, we would wonder why such a commotion is being made over a cancellation that undoubtedly will soon be rectified by an eager new owner.

This may seem like a small point, but it's a bit like being asked to mourn the final taping of a cable TV show called "Seinfeld" prior to its untimely axing. Instead of choosing to base his script on his popular radio show, Keillor might have done better to freshly conceive a new one. As a result, an uneasy note of self-congratulation creeps into the movie: We all know that in reality old G.K. is doing just fine.

But in whatever guise you dress up the radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion" has always been a marvelous concoction and Keillor's News From Lake Wobegone segment is often startlingly lyrical. Altman's movie captures some of that lyricism. Although contemporary, the film has the deliberately antique flavor of old-time radio - the world that existed before television.

It also has the buzzing vivacity of an Altman party movie. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep play Rhonda and Yolanda Johnson, sisters in a country duo that never made the big time; Lindsay Lohan plays Yolanda's daughter, who writes doggerel in the dressing room and gets her big chance to shine at the show's finale.

They are all marvelous. (Yes, even Lohan - that's what a great director can do for you.) Streep and Tomlin are so attuned to each other that it's as if they had worked together all of their lives. In fact, it's their first time. Streep has become a wonderfully soulful comedian; Tomlin always was one.

Kevin Kline plays Guy Noir, a stock character in the actual radio program. Here he is a genially cuckoo backstage guard who imagines himself to be a Chandleresque private eye. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are a singing cowboy act, the Old Trailhands, and Virginia Madsen, in the film's wooziest conceit, plays a white-raincoated angel of death drifting through the backstage area in a zonked swoon. The rich atmosphere, shot in high-definition by cinematographer Ed Lachman, is resonant enough without this pseudo-mystic filigree.

Altman's best movies, and many that are not his best, have been about the loss of innocence - both ours and, by extension, America's. In "A Prairie Home Companion," he buys into Keillor's forlorn sentimentalism to such an extent that it sponges up the director's scabrous side, the side of him that rages against the powers that be. That's appropriate here. At 81, Altman has earned the right to indulge his nostalgia for the way things were. Grade: B+

Rated PG-13 for risqué humor.

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