As America seems to drift ever farther from its regional identity, Garrison Keillor's live radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast from the heartland of St. Paul, Minn., has made a fetish of the folksy, the homespun and local. Even the venue for "Prairie" is apropos frumpy and old school -- the tinny, hinterland-reaching medium of radio.
Director Robert Altman's film version of A Prairie Home Companion is a kind of Nashville for the public-radio crowd, with all the self-conscious, strained "charm" that implies. A director who has managed to capture the edgy complexity of scenes as diverse as the country music segment in Nashville and the upstairs-downstairs British class system in Gosford Park, however, has his work cut out for him in making this particular slice of Americana live and breathe on the big screen. At 81, Altman is a filmmaking legend whose astounding career demands respect even if individual films like Dr. T and the Women, Cookie's Fortune and the creaky A Prairie Home Companion are less than his best work.
Keillor stars as G.K., the slow-poke, loquacious master of ceremonies for A Prairie Home Companion's cast of misfits and anachronisms, people who appear to be gelled in the same warm, brown aspic as the film itself.
The cinematic hook of the film is the scheduled demolition of the Fitzgerald Theater, the site of the show's live stage act. That demolition is, of course, symbolic for Keillor and Altman as an indicator of one kind of America being replaced by a more mercenary, profit-oriented one.
The grand old theater where the show is mounted has been bought by a corporation helmed by Axeman, a sinister, emotionless Texan (Tommy Lee Jones) who makes an appearance in the film's final hour. Though political commentary is largely absent from the bulk of the film, it's hard to miss the resemblance of this stone-faced company man to a certain Crawford, Texas, head of state with a similar disconnect from real Americans' struggles.
Narrating the backstage doings is the show's familiar character, the out-of-step gumshoe Guy Noir, played humorously by Kevin Kline with his ramrod posture and air of goofy cluelessness to the operations of the modern world.
The film is essentially a concert film that moves between comic bits of business and old-timey ditties sung on stage and the chaos behind the scenes. There is the usual Altmanesque point of view, with liquid, wandering camerawork flowing in and out of the action.
Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly play the farting and cussing faux-cowpokes Dusty and Lefty, and Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are the mildly loony singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, respectively. Streep and Tomlin's comically masticated Midwestern dialect and hangdog stoicism can be amusing, and some of the exchanges are genuinely funny, especially the pokey, tortoise shuffle of G.K. driving the show's lackeys insane with his endless leisurely chatter as the curtain is about to rise.
But the Middle American, canned warm-and-fuzzy quickly grows stale in a film where viewers may have to suspend disbelief to buy Keillor, with his face made for radio, pursued by the moony Yolanda. As his lovelorn ex, Yolanda parades her bosom for G.K. in improbable shows of infatuation, scenes that suggest Keillor is as vain as he is homespun, and on the way to setting himself up as the WASP version of Woody Allen's cinematic lady-killers.
A Prairie Home Companion's principal problem, beyond a corny "Hee Haw" take on regionalism, is the film's difficulty in fleshing out quirky radio personalities that only lived and breathed in the imagination-dependent free zone that radio provides. In film form, the corniness of the cowboy singers and the homespun ads for fictitiously old-timey products are just too broadly drawn. All the mystique of both radio and salt-of-the-earth Americana is lost to overstated caricature, which may make some welcome the arrival of that wrecking ball.
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