‘Prairie’ tales

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.

Movie review

Prairie Home Companion ???½

Starring Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly

Writtenby Garrison Keillor

Directed by Robert Altman

Rated PG-13

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

artsentertainmentOther Arts

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

U.S. Attorney David Anderson announces federal firearms charges against two men for their roles in a March 2019 shooting outside the Fillmore Heritage Center in a news conference alongside SFPD staff at the Phillip Burton Federal Building on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Departing U.S. attorney predicts corruption probe will continue

David Anderson shook up City Hall as top federal prosecutor

Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton has been asked to mediate union contract talks. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Supervisor Walton tapped to mediate teacher contract talks

District and union at odds over hours in-person students should be in the classroom

Disability advocates protested outside the home of San Francisco Health Officer Tomas Aragon. (Courtesy Brooke Anderson)
Vaccine rollout plan for people with disabilities remains deeply flawed

On February 13, disability activists paid a visit to the house of… Continue reading

A Bay Area Concrete Recycling facility that opened on PG&E property in 2019. Former PG&E employees have been accused of accepting bribes from Bay Area Concrete. (Courtesy of Bay Area Concrete Recycling via ProPublica)
Lawsuit reveals new allegations against PG&E contractor accused of fraud

By Scott Morris Bay City News Foundation Utility giant Pacific Gas &… Continue reading

New protected bicycle lanes stretch from the city's Portola District to Bernal Heights. (Courtesy Bay City News)
City leaders celebrate protected bike lanes in city’s Portola, Bernal Heights neighborhoods

San Francisco city leaders on Thursday announced the completion of new protected… Continue reading

Most Read