Rib-ticklingly funny at times and genial as all get-out, Robert Altman’s take on Garrison Keillor’s three-decades-old Minnesota institution is about nothing more or less than the privileged musical and behavioral moments created by the engagingly diverse cast. The shambling, oddly diffident Keillor makes a curious central figure, and there are few if any recent precedents to indicate if a loyal radio audience will follow its enthusiasm from the airwaves to movie houses. But the “Prairie Home Companion” brand name and likely upbeat word-of-mouth should translate into nice specialized biz, with crossover to significant Middle American consumption possible if all the cards come up right for Picturehouse upon skedded June 9 release.
From a story he worked out with Ken LaZebnik, Keillor concocted the screenplay about a radio show very much like the one he’s been broadcasting since July 1974 from St. Paul, Minn. With the exception of framing scenes at an Edward Hopperesque diner, entire pic takes place as the “fictional” show prepares for its final broadcast before its longtime home, the Fitzgerald Theater, is demolished by Texas real estate interests for Joni Mitchell’s proverbial parking lot.
But no big deal is made of the occasion, as GK, as he’s called, prefers to shuffle along as if it’s just another program. With Edward Lachman’s stealthy HD cameras constantly on the move, Altman follows the various participants on and backstage, capturing their quirks, preoccupations and agendas as their private and professional lives seamlessly mix.
It’s an artistic scheme the director has used numerous times before, including in his films about other artistic milieu, such as “The Company” (dance), “Kansas City” (jazz), “Ready-to-Wear” (fashion), “The Player” (film), “Vincent & Theo” (painting) and “Nashville” (country music).
Altman’s first significant professional job was as a radio writer, and while the film is scarcely concerned with craft and mechanics, there is a comfort with the setting that dovetails with the helmer’s evident delight in the performers he’s put in front of the camera; no trace here of the condescension that has sometimes marred his work.
Private detective Guy Noir is one of the “Companion’s” memorable longtime characters, and here he’s been slightly reimagined as a chronically underemployed investigator who handles security for the show. Wonderfully enacted by Kevin Kline in ’40s threads and attitudes, Guy is supposed to keep an eye on things (while narrating the tale) but becomes distracted by a mysterious blonde (Virginia Madsen) who materializes to insinuate herself into the proceedings in unforeseeable ways.
Also carrying over from Keillor’s actual show are cowboy crooners Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly), whose ongoing banter culminates in a final number, “Bad Jokes,” in which the off-color lyrics are indeed as bad as they are hilarious. Adding more down-home flavor is L.Q. Jones as a vet country singer.
But the most prominent singers here are Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin), the surviving half of what used to be a promising quartet of sisters. In the company of Yolanda’s teen daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan), who writes suicide poetry, the two gals yack on in wacky ways about family, special memories and disappointments, one of which, for Yolanda, includes an aborted romance with GK; this story strand is understated in the extreme, but informs Streep’s interactions with Keillor in a funny way.
So unhurried and distractible is GK that it seems a wonder that he can stay on top of all the demands of hosting the radio show. That he can is a tribute to his very pregnant assistant stage manager Molly (Maya Rudolph), for at the slightest provocation Keillor will launch into a story or anecdote that inevitably takes a while to tell. You might have to go back all the way to James Stewart to find a bigscreen antecedent for Keillor’s folksy Midwestern manner and leisurely verbal style.
All through the show, GK refuses to acknowledge that it’s the finale. “Every show’s your last show. That’s my philosophy,” he explains. Nor will he mention it when one cast member dies offstage during the broadcast; “I don’t do eulogies.”
While these lines may well have come straight from Keillor, one can only imagine they have a special resonance for Altman, who was 80 when the film was shot, something the film’s fleet style doesn’t betray for a moment. The specter of death, or at least the end of something, hovers over the enterprise, but in the lightest possible way, as if to ignore it — as GK ignores the theater’s impending doom — is the only possible policy.
The musical numbers are brief, spirited and thoroughly delightful, all backed by Keillor’s actual house band. Tom Keith, his sound effects man, also gets the spotlight for a couple of diverting minutes.
Amusement comes from many sources, although first among equals are Kline, whose comic timing in an uproariously silly phone scene, is in a class comparable to Buster Keaton and Cary Grant, and Harrelson, who locks in a hitherto unknown dry drollness that lifts his every line.
Tommy Lee Jones turns up toward the end as the Texas “axe man” come to witness the final moments of the Fitzgerald (named for St. Paul’s own F. Scott, a bust of whom Guy Noir scavenges as a keepsake).
Pic is burnished in amber shades, and there’s no trace of the images’ HD origins in the 35mm transfer.