Iconoclast director Robert Altman and heartland-styled raconteur Garrison Keillor combine their old-pro, dying-breed brands of outsiderhood to marvelously accessible effect in “A Prairie Home Companion,” a breezy, folksy tapestry inspired by Keillor’s long-running radio show.
The movie takes us through a ripple of life that, while often faux, flows vibrantly with midwestern mettle and human connection. While grumpy detractors may condemn it for not equaling Altman’s triumphs of yore, it’s a vital, worthy demonstration of a filmmaker’s essence.
Altman, whose multitudinous credits include “Nashville,” “Vincent and Theo” and “Gosford Park,” isn’t redundant, and this time, his distinctive setting and tone involve a down-home “Prairie”-like radio show airing from a demolition-slated St. Paul theater. Via onstage and backstage goings-on, the film presents the program’s final edition.
Keillor wrote the screenplay and stars as G.K., the show’s old-fashioned storytelling, singing host. Other characters include country-crooning sisters Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin); Yolanda’s depressive teenage daughter (Lindsay Lohan); and a jokester cowboy act (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly).
Even at his worst (“Dr. T and the Women”), Altman immerses you in a universe of activity where characters palpably share wavelengths, his m.o. consisting of devices such as overlapping conversations and ensemble improvisation. His proficiency in this arena, in tandem with Keillor’s knowledge of radio, enables “Prairie” to overcome its plot-sketchiness and succeed as a vivid portrait of a fantasyland of rhubarb pie, campfire camaraderie, songs like “Frankie and Johnny,” and the wonders of sound effects. Cornball it is, but this movie’s got pulse and personality.
It also contains a thread of mortality, with which Altman, never a Hollywood player, and Keillor shade their portrayal of old-timers and independent spirits living in cutthroat, conformist times. The presence of the grim reaper, who takes several forms — a corporate “Axeman” (Tommy Lee Jones), a trench-coat-clad angel of death (Virginia Madsen) and, more compellingly, the simple realities of nature — offsets the hokum.
As for the performances, Streep and Tomlin’s gabby sisters, who reminisce about things like a shoplifted doughnut, are particularly engaging. Keillor’s G.K. is more a persona than a full-fledged character, but that in itself makes him intriguing.
Less effective are Madsen and Kevin Kline, the latter playing 1940s-fashioned anachronistic gumshoe Guy Noir. Their characters appear intended to suggest mystery or otherworldliness in the “Prairie” cosmos, and that’s counterproductive. It is the ordinary folk in this pleasurable movie who deliver the magic.
Prairie Home Companion ???½
Starring Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly
Writtenby Garrison Keillor
Directed by Robert Altman
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes