'A Prairie Home Companion'
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The women are strong singers, many of the men are good-looking and there are no children -- above or below average -- in Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion."
Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan
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'A Prairie Home Companion.'
Rating: PG-13 for risque humor.
Starring: Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin.
Director: Robert Altman.
Web site: www.aprairiehomecompanionmovie.com
It's a movie about a radio show much like the real "Prairie Home Companion," but this variety program isn't syndicated but heard over WLT, a mom-and-pop radio station, in St. Paul, Minn.
Many of the touchstones are here, from Garrison Keillor as the emcee and Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) as a gumshoe working as a security guard at the Fitzgerald Theater to Powdermilk Biscuits, Norwegian bachelor farmers and the Ketchup Advisory Board.
Almost all of the movie is set on a single bittersweet night: A Texas corporation has bought the St. Paul radio station and plans to tear down the theater and put up a parking lot. The ax man (Tommy Lee Jones) is a bean-counter who dismisses the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald with, "I don't read romance. No time."
"Prairie Home" roams through the theater as the performers, musicians, stagehands, lunch lady and others leisurely -- too leisurely, for the taste of the pregnant assistant stage manager desperately trying to coax everyone out of makeup -- prepare for the live show. Wandering through the theater, like a ghostly figure, is a mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen) in a belted white raincoat.
Written by Keillor, the movie uses some of the folks heard regularly on the radio, such as sound-effects man Tom Keith and singer Jearlyn Steele, along with actresses or actors playing singers.
Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin portray the Johnson sisters, while Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are the singing, guitar-strumming cowboys Dusty and Lefty, who never met an off-color joke they didn't like. A bespectacled, blond Lindsay Lohan turns up as Streep's daughter, who favors poems about death and may have the family pipes after all.
Although the curtain literally comes down on a couple of folks, chatter is nonstop and characters reminisce about life-changing events -- an arrest over a glazed doughnut, a truck stop mix-up -- not a whole lot actually happens here. And that is just how Keillor wanted it.
"If you hold the axe over people's heads, well, there's a story right there," Keillor says in the press notes. "And then if they sort of ignore it and pay no attention and don't weep and carry on, they just sort of march up to the edge of the cliff and walk over, the way people do in real life. That appealed to me. These are supposedly Midwestern people, and they would tend to accept their demise with a certain aplomb."
And, on the part of Streep, a strong, lovely singing voice. It turns out there is nothing this woman cannot do: drama, comedy, tragedy, accents, harmonizing. I am looking forward to finding and playing the soundtrack, and she's one of the reasons why.
Two disappointments: No passage about a week, quiet or otherwise, in Lake Wobegon, and an ending in which the story just sort of runs out of gas. It's like a radio signal that grows dimmer and then is finally lost, although there's one last burst of sound before it goes dark.
Fans of the radio show will bask in its loose, easy charm; people who have never tuned in may wonder what the fuss is all about. It all goes down smoothly, just like the real radio show, which has kept many a cook, driver or diner entertained on a lively or lonely Saturday night.
First Published June 9, 2006 12:00 am