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A Prairie Home Companion

The Long Way Home

Director Robert Altman has such a distinctive style that it would be easy to spot his work without even his name in the credits. His best films are richly textured panoramas, bittersweet tales driven by strong ensemble casts and sharp dialogue. His camera floats constantly from one player to the next, hesitating just long enough to capture some telling look or remark before moving on to its next target. More often than not, he focuses on those brief, sometimes mundane interactions, preferring to explore the unfolding relationships between his characters than to keep his narrative moving.

In Prairie Home Companion, a movie that would have no reason to exist without its gently amusing dialogue, folksy anecdotes and nostalgic soliloquies, the dramatic personae of Lake Wobegon talk at and over each other, without ever really seeming to listen. They are played, mostly in flawless fashion, by gifted actors including Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson and Lily Tomlin, who breathe life into the proceedings but ultimately fail, through no fault of their own, to lend it dramatic resonance. It meanders along at its own leisurely pace, with plenty of style but no discernible direction.

The real star of this show, of course, is radio legend Garrison Keillor, who co-wrote the script based loosely on his own "Prairie Home Companion", the one-of-a-kind variety show -- the dark side of Lawrence Welk -- that has broadcast weekly, before live audiences, for more than three decades. Here, the "Companion" isn’t so much a cultural juggernaut as a failing business venture, and it is Keillor’s job to preside over the final show before his beloved station is purchased by a group of hyper-religious Texans. And preside he does, deftly regaling us with tall tales, philosophical musings (“Every show is your last show”) and gleefully absurd commercials for Norwegian milk biscuits. He is the glue that holds the show together, omnipresent but easygoing and unobtrusive, much like Altman’s roving camera.

Joining him on stage are Harrelson and John C. Reilly as Dusty and Lefty, a pair of ribald cowboys who appear regularly on the weekly "Companion"; Streep and Tomlin as the singing Johnson sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda, who never miss a chance to reminisce; and even Lindsay Lohan, who proves more than capable as Yolanda’s morbid daughter, Lola. Behind the scenes, Kline is Guy Noir, another regular, rendered here as a tipsy buffoon with an arsenal of snappy one-liners and a keen interest in Virginia Madsen, who plays some sort of mystical seductress.

These are characters who seem to belong to another era, existing in some sort of time warp of Keillor’s creation, but then, that has always been an integral part of "Prairie Home Companion's" charm. It is a throwback to the days when radio was king, lovingly preserved by Keillor’s fertile imagination and folksy but ironic Midwestern sensibility. And some of it really works. Streep and Tomlin deliver spirited performances as sisters whose careers will most likely die along with the show, even if their habit of stepping on each other’s lines -- another Altman trademark -- is a distraction. Also effective are Harrelson and Reilly, whose natural chemistry as dirty-minded prairie-dwellers is a joy to behold.

But by the time Tommy Lee Jones arrives at the show’s headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, representing the Texans who plan to replace the "Home Companion" with more marketable broadcasting, we’re supposed to lament the soulless homogenization of pop culture -- and, perhaps, another depressing victory for the religious right. Yet there is no tension, no climax. As a tribute to one of America’s longest-running radio treasures, Prairie Home Companion is perfectly pleasant, but as a dramatic narrative it is a flat, plodding production, inching along at its own languid pace.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars