June 15, 2006

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A Prairie Home Companion (PG-13)
Garrison Keillor briefly forgoes the pledge drive to take part in the sorta-commercial endeavor that is a Robert Altman movie in A Prairie Home Companion, a movie loosely based on the radio show of the same name.

"Loosely based" because the on-stage action is similar to what you'd find any Saturday you turn on the radio and "hear the old piano from down the avenue" (6 p.m. on NHPR for those who've never stuck around after Weekend All Things Considered). It's the behind-the-curtain stuff that crosses over the line into fiction.

In the movie version, A Prairie Home Companion is still a local radio show geared to the audience within broadcasting distance of St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater. A big Texas corporation has bought the station and axed the show — a fact that doesn't seemed to have fazed host Keillor one bit. Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), the show's security guard (he's a noir, shadow-enchanted detective in a well-lit world), hopes that fate will intervene and that a mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen) in a white trench coat will somehow save the day. Singing sisters Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) and Yolanda (Meryl Streep) Johnson seem trapped in a song-filled nostalgia for their early days on the gospel/country/Americana music circuit, much to the annoyance of Yolanda's death-poetry writing daughter Lola (Lindsey Lohan). Pregnant show assistant Molly (Maya Rudolph) seems most concerned with getting and keeping Keillor on the stage (his long meandering stories keep him cemented in any conversation he starts). And singing cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) seem most concerned with sneaking a few gently rude jokes past the show's manager.

The jokes of this mostly-comedy come from the mingling of two styles — Altman's fly-on-the-wall, overlapping scenes and dialogue approach to film-making and Keillor's deadpan-hokey olde-timey with easy to chew bits of irony approach to radio. The Johnsons talk in their sing-songy voices about long-dead-relatives and pets floating in and out of gospel songs and tales of woe punctuated by bless-their-hearts-sweetness. So we get Yolanda's musings about Minnesota curiosities (Keillor's jokes) layered over Rhonda's regrets about not going to Chicago when she was younger and Lola's look of horror at how square her mother is (Altman's craftsmanship). Does this make for rip-roaring comedy? No, but if you generally like Altman's style and Keillor's show this makes for a pleasant nearly-two-hours of movie. B-


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