"Powdermilk biscuits: Heavens, they're tasty and expeditious. They're made from whole wheat, to give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done..." If that faux radio advertisement strikes a chord, you already know about A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor's comfortingly homey, long-running radio revue. But there's another Prairie Home Companion on the scene; this one pairs Keillor with octogenarian director Robert Altman, and the results are eccentrically entertaining in a whole new way. Shot in Minneapolis' Fitzgerald Theatre (the real-life home of Keillor's show), Altman's film imagines a funhouse-mirror version of the radio program.
Keillor's top actors—Tim Russell and Sue Scott—are here, but they're atypically playing one role each, as part of a terrific ensemble: Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Virginia Madsen, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Maya Rudolph, and L.Q. Jones. The lightly confected plot concerns the apparent final show of an old-fashioned radio program called "A Prarie Home Companion," hosted with just-so, halting delivery by a character dubbed "G.K." (Keillor).
Perhaps having soaked up Minnesotan Lutheran resignation, the imperturbable G.K. proves maddeningly sanguine about impending misfortune ("Every show is your last show—that's my philosophy"), much to the chagrin of performer and old flame Yolanda Johnson (Streep). Yolanda and Rhonda (Tomlin), her sister, make a country duo, as do cowboy singers Dusty and Lefty (Harrelson and Reilly). Backstage drama develops with Yolanda's depressive daughter Lola (Lohan)—who's a flower itching to blossom—as well as two spectres haunting the theatre this night: the corporate "Axeman" (Jones) sent to close up shop and the kooky "Dangerous Woman" (Madsen) who may be the Angel of Death.
Rhonda notes, "Music is the only thing that puts me right," and it is, of course, an all-important element here, often fatalistically anticipating the film's themes. All filmed live before an audience, the songs include "Gold Watch & Chain" (Keillor and Streep), "Goodbye to My Mama" (Streep and Tomlin), "Frankie & Johnny" (Lohan), and a jam-style "In the Sweet By and By." A particular highlight is Jearlyn Steele's heartfelt gospel rendition of a wistful Keillor original, "The Day is Short" ("The day is short/The night so long/Why do you work so hard to get what you don't even want?").
Despite the presence of sound-effects man Tom Keith, musical director Rich Dworsky with The Guys All-Star Shoe Band, and other PHC stalwarts, Altman's film and Keillor's screenplay offer much that differs from the weekly show, and why not? Kline's version of Guy Noir—investigator of "life's persistent questions"—is a clownish busybody bearing little resemblance to the laconic gumshoe Keillor plays on the radio, but with Kline amusing himself, and us in the process, who's complaining?
We don't get a proper tale from Lake Wobegon; instead, Keillor fashions a film-long valedictory for good old fashion and short, flawed human existence. Altman's skillful photography and collage aesthetic prove compatible with Keillor's variety show, capped here with a winning coda at the local cast "haunt": Mickey's Diner. A nutty, fictional ode-elegy to a show that's still going strong, A Prairie Home Companion offers a unique hybrid of a folksy American showman and an improvisatory impresario.
[For Groucho's interview with Lily Tomlin, click here.]