Get along, shaggy doggie

A Prairie Home Companion

Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan, together at last.

Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan, together at last.

Rated 4.0

If you know anything about Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio series A Prairie Home Companion, and anything about director Robert Altman, the idea of the two of them collaborating on a movie about the radio show seems like a marriage made in Hollywood heaven; the very thought is probably enough to bring a smile. And, as it turns out, the movie rewards anticipation. It’s a trifle, but a sweet and lovely one—a shaggy-dog story but, like the best shaggy-dog stories, such a pleasure to behold that we don’t begrudge the apparent aimlessness of it all. The movie’s folksy meanderings, like those of the radio show itself, are the source of its charm.

The premise of Keillor’s screenplay (from a story he concocted with Ken LaZebnik) is lugubrious, almost maudlin, but the follow-through is lighthearted and wistful. The first person we meet is Guy Noir, Keillor’s private-eye character on the show, here transformed into the program’s security man and played by Kevin Kline. As Noir shambles from a nearby diner to the stage door of St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater, he tells us, in a pseudo-hard-boiled voiceover narration, that the last radio broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion is about to begin. The show, he says, has been on the air “since Jesus was in the third grade,” but it’s all ending now, as the Fitzgerald is about to be turned into a parking lot.

Keillor himself (playing himself) is unperturbed by his show coming to an end. “Every show is your last show,” he says. “That’s my philosophy.” But then, nothing much seems to penetrate the air of passive-aggressive preening that Keillor projects (on radio and in the film)—not the fact that it’s two minutes to airtime, and he’s in the middle of a rambling anecdote that everyone’s heard before; not an ex-girlfriend haranguing him on the air; not the death of a cast member during the broadcast; and not even a woman who claims to have died when she lost control of her car laughing at one of his unfunny jokes. The “G.K.” of the movie is mild-mannered and self-absorbed, swaddled in cracker-barrel false modesty and confident that every word out of his mouth is pure gold.

It’s a persona that might be off-putting in large doses, but G.K. steps aside often, yielding the screen (as the real Keillor yields the microphone) to the supporting players who are the real backbone of the film. First and second among equals are the Johnson Sisters, Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) and Yolanda (Meryl Streep), who reminisce in broad Minnesota drawls in their dressing room with Yolanda’s teenage daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) before going onstage to sing sadly about their Mississippi home. Then there’s Molly (Maya Rudolph), the show’s long-suffering assistant stage manager, herding G.K. around with dogged patience. Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) are two cowboy singers who apparently have only one set of clothes apiece. Even Tom Keith, the show’s real-life sound-effects man, gets his moment to shine. And through it all stalks a trench-coated wraith identified only as the Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen), wafting watchfully through the theater, backstage and out front, talking portentously about changes and transitions.

The idea of the radio Companion coming to an end is almost absurd; the show will surely last until Keillor decides to end it (as he did, briefly, from 1987 to ’89). But there’s a very real elegiac atmosphere to the film, and it has to do not with the program, but with the career of Robert Altman. Altman is 81 now, and in a wistful way, A Prairie Home Companion has “goodbye” written all over it, with quiet little hat tips to his unique career—for example, the presence of Tomlin (whose best work has been for Altman, dating back to Nashville in 1975) and Madsen, whose character echoes Sally Kellerman’s fallen angel in Brewster McCloud (1970).

Will this be the filmmaker’s swan song? We can certainly hope not. Then again, Altman’s implicit philosophy has always been that every film is your last film. That’s something else he has in common with Garrison Keillor.