Honey, You Could Ask for More

Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan (ouch) and Garrison Keillor, who's almost a bit player in the movie about a fictional radio show that fails to mention Lake Wobegon.
Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan (ouch) and Garrison Keillor, who's almost a bit player in the movie about a fictional radio show that fails to mention Lake Wobegon. (Photos By Melinda Sue Gordon -- Picturehouse; Above, Via Associated Press)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 9, 2006

Trivial Pursuit buffs, remember "A Prairie Home Companion" for this, if nothing else: It's going to be the only movie about a radio show that puts Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan together in the same cast.

For its listeners, the weekly broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion" is a vicarious visit to the fantasy world of its host, Garrison Keillor, who entertains them with down-home music, tongue-in-cheek jingles and shaggy-dog stories all centered on the fictional small town of Lake Wobegon, whose residents regard life with good-natured stoicism.

Imagination is the key, as listeners "see" make-believe characters such as Guy Noir -- a Sam Spade-like detective voiced by Keillor -- and chuckle at the inspired sound effects of Tom Keith, who can evoke anything from whirring helicopter blades to dog flatulence.

But the movie, directed by Robert Altman, reconfigures this mind's-eye world into a loopy backstage drama, with Streep, Lohan and Lily Tomlin playing brand-new characters and Keillor presiding over the proceedings in what seems to be an air of beetle-browed befuddlement. For all the entertaining bustle that is an Altman movie -- the overlapping dialogue and comic banter of everything from "Nashville" to "Gosford Park"-- too many key elements of the original show are bypassed.

There's no mention of Lake Wobegon, for instance, where, as the well-known slogan has it, "the women are strong, the men are good looking and all the children are above average." Instead, Altman and Keillor (the principal scriptwriter) concoct a sort of parallel universe in which a Minnesota radio show -- still called "A Prairie Home Companion" -- faces its final broadcast.

It seems a Texas corporation (no prizes for detecting Keillor's liberal symbolism) has bought the station and intends to turn it into a parking lot. In fact, a sour-faced suit by the name of Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) is on his way to shut things down. But until that ominous moment, Keillor is bound and determined to let the show go on.

Maybe he should be happy with a buyout. While Keillor emcees, reminisces and sings at his upright mike, as he always does, Altman focuses mainly on the ensemble shenanigans around him. Suddenly, Keillor, normally the omniscient hub of his own world, is relegated to a bit player. And that rich baritone voice -- the heart, soul and magic of the original show -- becomes this movie's human equivalent of background music. Put another way, you wouldn't want anyone but Robin Williams telling his own jokes -- let alone a company of actors re-enacting them.

There are snatches of fun throughout the film, especially in the back-and-forth between Streep and Tomlin as a pair of singing sisters and the endearing goofiness of Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, who assume the roles of Dusty and Lefty, respectively, the original show's wandering cowpokes, here given to corny, risque jokes and songs. Kevin Kline also has his amusing turns, interpreting Guy Noir as a sort of Inspector Clouseau of the Midwest.

But other performers don't fare as well. As Lola, the daughter of singing sister Yolanda Johnson (Streep), Lohan is a wooden, sometimes even cringe-inducing presence, who pens dark poems about suicide. Her character does little to drive the story, and Lohan seems to be cast merely to attract younger audiences. (In his foreword to the published screenplay, Keillor claims he wrote her a part because Altman impulsively invited her into the cast. Well, it shows.)

In the weakest character construct of all, Virginia Madsen plays a wandering angel of death, who stalks the "Prairie" set in a raincoat, apparently seeking out Heaven-bound souls. A former listener of the show, she apparently went off the road one night, disoriented by one of Keillor's on-air jokes. A tragic-absurdist conceit like this would have worked beautifully in a Keillor narrative, with our imagination filling in the details. But in the flesh, Madsen comes across as unintentionally silly. Altman's great with ensemble films and naturalistic performances, but he's out of his depth with surrealism. That approach is better left in the hands of more visually imaginative artists like Luis Bunuel or David Lynch.

Books, plays and television shows are regularly transmogrified into films, so the notion of a movie shattering pre-existing notions of beloved characters is hardly outrageous. But there's something different about repurposing "A Prairie Home Companion." Fans of the radio show (now in its 33rd year), who have their own conceptions of Guy Noir and Keillor's other fanciful creations, are likely to be disappointed by the marquee names supplanting their mental images. And viewers new to Keillor's world are unlikely to appreciate the movie's characters in the context of small-town America and the tradition of old-time radio. They might wonder: Why is everyone so darn homespun, ethereal and goofy?

In his films, Altman usually converts a corner of the real world -- think of the country-music industry in "Nashville," the Korean War in "M*A*S*H" or Hollywood studios in "The Player" -- into his own analog reality. But what happens when he does the same for a universe that is already analog? You get a front-end collision of syntheses. And to borrow from Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," you realize you're not in Lake Wobegon anymore.

A Prairie Home Companion (105 minutes, at area theaters ) is rated PG-13 for risque humor.

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