A Prairie Home Companion

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A Prairie Home Companion

(Above [L-R]: Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan on the set of A Prairie Home Companion. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon.)

Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Garrison Keillor (screenplay), Keillor and Ken LaZebnik (story)
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Starring: Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Tommy Lee Jones, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, Maya Rudolph
Studio info: Picturehouse, 105 mins.

Film for Radio: Keillor and Altman deliver a light-hearted ode to radio

Tolkien had one giant mythological world, but Garrison Keillor has several.

One is the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, Minn., which Keillor describes each week on his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. Another is the true story of how he, a boy from a small town in the Midwest, moved to the city and found his way into radio. And yet another is his re-creation of radio’s heyday—the pre-television years, before he himself was a participant—in stories like “Roy Bradley, Boy Broadcaster” and his novel WLT: A Radio Romance.

All writers fold their experiences into their work, but Keillor, more than most, has a playful disregard for the line between fact and fiction. He writes stories as if they were memoirs, and he claims on the air to hail from a fictional town that sits on the banks of a fictional lake.

Now Keillor and filmmaker Robert Altman have created another radio world, an amalgam of the ones we already know. Garrison plays Garrison, naturally, the host of a radio show, but it’s a local variety show instead of a national program heard by millions. It’s the kind of show that the real Companion pretends to be, and in the movie it’s about to get the axe from the station’s new owner. Altman’s star-studded cast is natural and energetic—with the exception of a surprisingly detached Keillor—and the Hollywood folks mingle easily, in character, among the real show’s performers, a technique Altman perfected in Nashville. They’re all fun to watch, but the standouts are Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, who play singing sisters as if they’ve been doing this for years, and Kevin Kline as the house detective, Guy Noir. On the radio, Keillor voices Noir by mimicking Bogart, but Kline plays him like an American version of Inspector Clouseau, even though he looks more like David Niven than Peter Sellers.

If you’re having trouble separating the real from the fake, you’re probably just where Keillor and Altman want you to be. Both of them have always understood the value of spontaneity, and they work hard to bottle that lightning, or at least the idea of it. Keillor’s script includes a number of “live radio” mishaps that require the characters to improvise—Lindsay Lohan does a funny approximation of “Frankie & Johnny”—and the camera is remarkably fluid as it roams the gorgeous Fitzgerald Theatre. In the small dressing rooms, it floats casually like a balloon, somehow avoiding all the mirrors.

The elephant in the room is Lake Wobegon, which Keillor alludes to once but otherwise doesn’t figure into this world. Maybe it can’t. Maybe it wouldn’t survive the transition to the screen, but it’s still an unfortunate omission since it’s the heart of Keillor’s work. Lake Wobegon houses all his contradictions, his fondness for and his bitterness toward America’s small towns. His book Lake Wobegon Days, for example, includes what may be the longest footnote in American fiction, a young man’s list of 95 complaints about his upbringing. What begins as a funny parody of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses quickly spirals into rage.

Keillor occasionally bares his teeth in his famous monologues, but never in the movie. He and Altman focus instead on the music, the personalities and the terrible jokes that you can’t help laughing at. The only nod to the missing monologue is a recurring bit of self-parody: Keillor tells a long, meandering story to anyone who asks him how he got into radio. He’s like a joyless, story-telling, commercial-reading robot. He even seems a little nervous, but somehow that too fits into the mythologies that swirl around him, and I can’t think of a better director to sort through them than Robert Altman.