HOME on the PRAIRIE

Off-kilter Americana from venerated oddballs Keillor and Altman.

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America, or at least some agreeably peculiar version of itself, colors every moment of A Prairie Home Companion. We'd expect nothing less from a collaboration between director Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor, two venerated oddballs who sprang up right in the heart of the Great Midwest and then harvested lifetimes of droll wit and imagination seeing what makes the rest of the country tick.

The America we get in A Prairie Home Companion is a mostly happy anachronism — an off-kilter yet pleasantly homespun place equal parts Norman Rockwell, Will Rogers and the "old weird America" of early 20th-century murder ballads — and the film invites us to experience it with our ears as much as with our eyes.

It opens with the static image of a radio station transmitter and the sounds of dial surfing (the channel changes from old-timey country music, to the weather, to a farm report), and then the camera begins to drift heavenward. It's as if those audio bites were being beamed out into space and immortalized, stray bits of Americana drifting among the cosmos and then, in the blink of an edit, bouncing back to earth.

The terrestrial sweet-spot where those radio signals (and Altman's camera) land is Minnesota — specifically, a dimly lit, all-night diner straight out of an Edward Hopper painting, where a self-styled gumshoe named Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) sets up the story. In the tradition of all the best Altman films, however, A Prairie Home Companion isn't really a story so much as a series of riffs, routines and odd ends that add up to considerably more than the sum of their parts.

Then again, you might also say that Altman's and Keillor's collection of small moments, tall tales and off-the-cuff anecdotes is nothing but story. Like so many Altman movies, this one is a wash of detail without concrete beginnings or ends, covering everything from love and death to sugar rushes and shoplifting. You might say that it amounts to nothing less than a Never-Ending Story.

The Hopper-esque diner turns out to be just a framing device for A Prairie Home Companion, which mostly takes place on the set and behind the scenes of a long-running radio variety show in the process of broadcasting its final program. Keillor, more or less playing himself, is the host of the eponymous program, a 30-year-old show whose musical guests, comedians and commentators compose a sort of family, both on stage and off, and whose backstage feuds, flings and foibles provide neat, sometimes overly neat, parallels to their public personae.

Comparisons to Nashville are unavoidable, and A Prairie Home Companion often does play like a scaled-down, less ambitious version of that 1975 Altman masterpiece (comparisons with the more recent and frivolous The Company are apt, too). There's only a stage here, and what lies behind and in front of it, as the camera flits between watching the performers going through their shtick before a live audience and whiling away the time backstage. Keillor spins tales and sings jingles for fish spread and appliances, cowboy comedians Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) harmonize on an ever-escalating series of off-color ditties, and the singing Johnston Sisters (Meryl Streep and Nashville veteran Lily Tomlin) strut their stuff for the crowd.

Meanwhile two old coots prepare for a backstage love tryst that never happens; a corporate axe-man (Tommy Lee Jones) emerges to monitor the show's last gasp; and Streep's teenage daughter (Lindsay Lohan) sits in the wings writing poems about suicide and scribbling the names of favorite bands (Coldplay, The Smiths) in her notebook.

The ensemble cast seems to be having a great time together (the chemistry between Harrelson and Reilly is particularly inspired), the overlapping dialogue is quintessential Altman, and most of it plays out in a way that's as effortlessly natural as it is enjoyable. The only real problems here are when the movie occasionally forgets to stay loose or, worse, when it begins throwing metaphors around in an effort at achieving some sort of, for lack of a better word, significance.

The first problem materializes mainly in the form of Kline's Guy Noir, a stiff but buffoonish archetype who speaks exclusively in glib, dimestore-pulp patter ("She had a smile so sweet you could pour it on your pancakes") and who often seems to be in a different movie altogether from the other characters.

Even stranger is the character played by Virginia Madsen, an enigmatic figure who appears to be the angel of death in a trench coat and who flits in and out of the proceedings saying things like "Do you believe in the fullness of time and the spirit?"

Incorporating someone as obviously unreal as Madsen's "dangerous woman" (that's how she's referred to in the credits) is an audacious move — she's a bit like Sally Kellerman's big bird-mama in Altman's thoroughly over-the-top Brewster McCloud — but she sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the basically naturalistic settings here, and her interactions with the other characters make everyone a little less believable. The film seems a bit strained when its characters are trying to respond in unaffected ways to Kline's Sam-Spade-meets-Inspector-Clouseau mannerisms, but it verges on pretentiousness when Madsen's exterminating angel stays too long on screen.

For the most part, though, A Prairie Home Companion is good, loopy fun, full of piss and vinegar, barreling along with a forward momentum so vigorous you'd hardly suspect Altman turned 81 this year. Altman's advanced age basically renders him uninsurable, however, which meant that a back-up director had to be present on the set of APHC at all times. That hand-picked back-up director was P.T. Anderson — whose Boogie Nights and Magnolia are films that Altman himself might have made in another lifetime — a fact that only increases our awareness of A Prairie Home Companion, energy and affable humor aside, as somehow elegiac, a movie about the passing of time, the fading of institutions, the changing of the guard.

It's impossible to ignore the possibility that this genial ode to the death of a radio show might just be the director's swan song. Then again, as Altman is forever reminding us, beginnings and endings are highly overrated. It's like Keillor's character explains here: "Every show's my last show. That's my philosophy." And you can practically see the filmmaker smiling in agreement, eager to get back to that Never Ending Story.

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