First of all, I can't say how the Robert Altman/Garrison Keillor collaboration A Prairie Home Companion compares to the radio program on which it's based, given that I support National Public Radio in every way that doesn't actually involve me listening to the thing. But friends who do know the show have voiced disappointment that the movie doesn't end with Keillor telling a 'Lake Wobegon storyâ?� ' which I guess in their cosmologies roughly corresponds to the moment on any episode of Star Trek when William Shatner puts down the green babe and restores his crew's flagging confidence by delivering a soul-stirring speech that culminates in a group recital of the Pledge of Allegiance. So if any one of the kajillion Trek movies had dared to omit that classic moment, yeah, I guess I'd have felt shortchanged.
But really, watching a homely Midwesterner wax rhapsodic about other homely Midwesterners is not a climax that best meets the demands of a visual medium. And it's not as if the movie is lacking in anecdotes, anyway: As he putters around backstage awaiting the last of his beloved radio broadcasts, Keillor (playing himself ' and rather effectively, I thought) has ample opportunity to spin colorful old-time-radio stories for anyone who'll listen. Thus do we learn about the personalities and peccadilloes of an era in which the medium hadn't yet become big business, or even broadcast journalism ' it was just puttin' on a show.
Wait a minute ' 'his broadcasts?â?� 'Playing himself?â?� Yep, the film is a seriocomic meta-revue centered on the idea that Keillor's program is being pushed off the air thanks to the disinterest of a new corporate owner. That gives the cast of musicians and comedians one more chance to flaunt their talents for a listening audience that, though adoring, has nonetheless been pronounced inconsequential in the grand moneymaking scheme of things. Only one sliver of potential salvation remains, in the form of a mysterious blonde (Virginia Madsen) in a white trench coat, whose unexplained comings and goings pique the curiosity of backstage detective Guy Noir (Kevin Kline).
Put aside the supernatural-suspense angle, and the parallels to the precarious state of NPR are obvious. But the film never gets too preachy, instead using its personality-rich talent segments to vindicate the rustic charm of live radio. Singing cowboy clowns Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly float a cute dumb-and-dumber act, culminating in a triumphant recitation of favorite lowbrow jokes set to music. The best moments, though, belong to sister songbirds Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep; it's not exactly a pairing one would equate with honeyed cadences, true, but their voices mesh beautifully and with spine-tingling brio. Their (slightly lyrically altered) version of 'Old Folks at Homeâ?� wrings the last ounce of tragedy out of the lines 'All the world is sad and dreary/Everywhere I roamâ?� ' lyrics every schoolkid learns without ever recognizing the true depth of their heartbreak. (It's also fun to note that Streep's on-screen daughter, Lindsay Lohan, has the weakest voice of the three ' and she's the one who's a 'professional singerâ?� in real life.)
This is the Altman of Nashville, back to inhabiting the performer's world with thoroughness and infectious affection. His more recent stab at a footlights parade, the ballet-world snoozer The Company, appeared to have been made for viewers who not only had never been around a performing-arts organization, but had never wondered for more than five minutes what it might be like. Prairie, in contrast, is an inside joke that's just as appealing to outsiders. And aside from a wholly unnecessary, tacked-on final scene (that comes dangerously close to unraveling the entire affair), it's a moving elegy for an entire way of life ' one in which pleasing a live audience was more important than rubbing a suit the right way. I'm no expert, but a lost landscape like that sounds pretty Wobegon to me.