Garrison Keillor and Robert Altman. One has a radio show, the other makes movies. In each man’s case, either you like his work or you don’t, period, and no amount of cajoling from the other side will make you change your mind.
I’ve listened to Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” on NPR and found it mildly amusing at best, a folksy little program with jokes that I understand and appreciate, though I always wonder why his live audience is laughing so much harder than I am. Altman, meanwhile, has made films both brilliant (“Gosford Park,” “The Player,” “MASH”) and awful (“Dr. T and the Women”), as well as a few, like “Nashville,” that are beloved by film connoisseurs and that I just don’t get.
These two icons of love-him-or-hate-him entertainment have collaborated to make “A Prairie Home Companion,” a movie that is both a film version of Keillor’s radio show and a backstage ensemble comedy in the traditional Altman style. It retains Keillor’s wry, cornball sensibilities (he wrote the screenplay), and Altman makes his presence as director unobtrusive, favoring long, unbroken takes from Steadicams that float around the theater like a silent and omniscient observer.
The film’s fictional scenario is that new owners are shutting down “A Prairie Home Companion,” making tonight’s broadcast its last. Keillor, playing himself, is philosophical about it, while some of his regular performers, like sister act Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), become nostalgic. Cast and crew are abuzz with talk of the corporate big-wig (Tommy Lee Jones) who’s supposed to show up and pull the plug. Cowboy musicians Lefty (Woody Harrelson) and Dusty (John C. Reilly) decide now’s the time to perform the bawdiest jokes in their repertoire. (“I think my wife might have died.” “Why do you think that?” “Well, the sex is the same, but the dishes are stacking up.”)
Meanwhile, a mysterious woman in white (Virginia Madsen) wanders through all corners of the theater, arousing the attention (both professional and personal) of theater security guard Guy Noir (Kevin Kline). Noir, a regular character on Keillor’s radio show, is here portrayed as a real person, a 1940s-style private detective who says things like, “She gave me a smile so sweet, you could pour it on your pancakes.” Kline plays him as slightly bumbling and accident prone, earning enough laughs to be one of the film’s standouts.
Two of the film’s best scenes occur onstage during the performance of the show itself. In one, Yolanda, a former lover of Keillor’s, has a meltdown during one of his commercials for a fictitious product (duct tape, in this case). In the other, Lefty and Dusty perform a song devoted to bad jokes and tell quite a few of them in the course of it. The musicians are cracking up, and Harrelson and Reilly frequently seem on the verge of laughing themselves. Both scenes are masterpieces of gleeful, carefully orchestrated comedy.
The rest of the movie is typical Altman — which is either good or bad, depending on your view. Characters’ conversations overlap as in real life, and there is a de-emphasis on plot that causes the film to flirt dangerously with dullness. It never quite succumbs, though; the “Prairie Home Companion” broadcast itself is harmlessly diverting enough, with its down-home music and gospel tunes, to keep a viewer’s interest. Keillor’s fans will probably consider the film a masterwork, while Altman’s people will file it away as one of the director’s average efforts, better than “Popeye” but worse than “Short Cuts.”
B- (1 hr., 45 min.; )