A Prairie Home Companion

Opens at Seven Gables and others, Fri., June 9. Rated PG-13. 105 minutes.

Considered purely as a musical, I'm quite prepared to accept Robert Altman's backstage mishmash treatment of Garrison Keillor's venerable radio program. The bits between the songs are shaggy, an adjective that clings to Altman like wet to water, and no Altman fan will even raise an eyebrow if half these scenes behind the curtains of St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater don't work. And even when they don't work, they—like the songs performed by Altman's typically teeming, talented cast— put a smile on your face. For a film that's fundamentally morose, that imagines Keillor's final WLT broadcasts, that concedes how homespun entertainment will inexorably fall to the corporate media axe, Companion is still one of the most fundamentally affirmative movies I've seen in years.

Even as Kevin Kline pushes his anachronistic detective character (Guy Noir, groan) too far into pratfalls, I laughed. Even as poor Virginia Madsen haunts the Fitzgerald as an angel of death (double groan), I chuckled when she makes a date with Tommy Lee Jones' corporate Texan caricature. (He, the teetotaling born-again "Axeman," has come to close the show, not sensing the fatal sandbag hanging over his own head.) And if Lindsay Lohan, playing the punky, morbid daughter of Minnesota chanteuse Meryl Streep, isn't very good, you can at least commend her for failing on a higher level than Just My Luck.

While Keillor (here called G.K.) serenely orchestrates the show, the wings are aflutter. Kline pursues Madsen. Streep and Lily Tomlin (as her tarter sister) swap stories and trade outfits. (And their faces still move when they talk, God bless them.) The singing cowboy act, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson, tends more toward fart jokes and sexual insults. Maya Rudolph, pregnant and impatient, wanders around looking pregnant and impatient as the stage manager. L.Q. Jones, an actor who goes back to Altman's 1950s TV days, prepares for a dressing-room assignation when he's not crooning onstage. Again, though death is imminent, everyone's brimming with life.

How can anyone on the show concentrate, much less sing in key, with the scythe looming overhead? Because in showbiz, you show up to perform, so long as your heart is beating. There is no choice but to go on, live, when the camera or microphone beckons. "We don't look back in radio," says Keillor. "We don't get old, and nobody dies." For that reason, he observes, there'd be no point to a moment of silence—on the radio! You've got to keep talking, or singing, while there's breath left in your lungs.

Altman's tone is obviously elegiac here. He grew up on '30s radio, and the very first shot—dawn over Minnesota farmland, crackling voices in the airwaves between the morning stars—speaks to a communal power of imagination that gives shape to a hastily typed script. God willing, this won't be the 81-year-old Altman's last movie. (He's already planning Hands on a Hard Body, about those Sunbelt win-a-truck endurance contests.) Companion isn't his best effort, but it lives up to Keillor's unsentimental Minnesota remark: "Every show's your last—that's my philosophy."

 
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