Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion” strikes me as an exceedingly selfconscious attempt to do a Robert Altman movie (“MASH,” “Short Cuts”). The big-ticket cast is there, the improvised jumble of subplots and chatter, the touches of whimsy — but it all feels rigidly formal, a coloring-book exercise without genuine definition.
Still, one can’t deny the movie’s homespun cuteness, especially with Midwestern radio personality Garrison Keillor holding court. Set during the fictitious final broadcast of Keillor’s long-running radio program, the movie makes for an odd but endearing swirl of music, fantasy and parable.
(For the record, Keillor reinstated the show after a two-year hiatus in the late ’80s.)
In front of a packed house at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., the cast and crew of “Home Companion” soldier on through their final live broadcast, knowing full well that a corporate ax man from Texas (Tommy Lee Jones) will arrive later to put the final kibosh on the show. Taking the news especially hard are Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (played by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, respectively), sibling songbirds whose family groomed them to be entertainers: “Like the Carters,” Yolanda tells her brooding teen daughter (Lindsay Lohan, in a thin phase). “Only people have heard of them.”
More philosophical is Keillor (playing himself), a lumbering, velvet-voiced paradox of a man who looks a cross between liberal firebrand Michael Moore and a large, bespectacled catfish.
“Every show is my last show,” Keillor says, evincing the Midwestern stoicism that became his public radio calling card.
Keillor, who also wrote the screenplay, is as true an American original as they come. Crooning jingles for Jens Jensen’s Herrings, Beboparebop Rhubarb Pie and other valued “sponsors,” the musician/ comedian/raconteur impishly turns old-time radio into kitsch art. The music is nearly continuous in Altman’s movie, and makes for a damnably fine show. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, as a pair of saddle tramps, have a ball with Keillor’s bad-jokes segment, and Lohan puts a satisfying smoky twist on “Frankie and Johnny.”
As a scenarist, Keillor pushes Altman’s intersectionoriented style to the limits of tedium. Initially, we’re intrigued by the beautiful, white-clad stranger (Virginia Madsen) who floats around backstage and engages the theater’s in-house detective (Kevin Kline, affecting Raymond Chandler) in an eerie repartee. Then Altman pulls some groping Wim Wenders nonsense on us and the movie, bafflingly, becomes a meditation on death.
More broadly, Keillor seems to have tailored the script to be a Robert Altman movie, which is sort of like the boom mic wagging the dog, isn’t it? He’s an auteur, not a franchise.
‘A Prairie Home Companion’
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan
Rating: PG-13 (risqué humor)
Running time: 105 minutes
Playing: Opens today in Valley theaters