Little masterpiece on the ‘Prairie’

By and

“A Prairie Home Companion”


Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Garrison Keillor

Starring: Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Virginia Madsen, Tommy Lee Jones and Maya Rudolph

Rated PG-13/110 minutes

Opened June 9, 2006

Four out of four stars

A Robert Altman film is unmistakable in a crowd. It’s the proud rebel, chatting loudly over the other chatterboxes in a truthfully discordant choir of reality.

Or maybe an Altman film is like a carefully knitted quilt-a patchwork of characters worthy of wrapping around our shoulders for comfort and warmth.

Or if that doesn’t suit your fancy, maybe an Altman film is like a tumbling tumbleweed, set free from movie conventions, prone to meandering here, there and everywhere-kind of like this introduction.

Let me start over.

“A Prairie Home Companion” is the great Altman’s latest film. It’s as free-spirited and delightfully tangential as his best works-and when your best includes such classics as “M.A.S.H.” and “Gosford Park,” maintaining that quality instead of going down, down, down is some kind of miracle.

Garrison Keillor stars as himself-a host of a popular live radio show called “The Prairie Home Companion,” the kind of country-fried, musical variety-program that out-hips Lawrence Welk, but only just barely. On the air since 1974, the show faces cancellation after the station is purchased by an uncaring Texas conglomerate headed by The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones, in full man-of-few-words-and-even-fewer-feelings mode).

The cast scrambles around backstage, aware that this may be its last show ever. Rhonda Johnson (Lily Tomlin), the bossier half of the singing Johnson Singers, suggests to Keillor that he say a eulogy. He refuses.

“If a man of my age starts doing eulogies, it’s all he ever does.”

Altman and his free-range cameraman, Edward Lachman, roam the stage down to the dressing rooms, capturing life being lived. Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep) reminisces about the golden years, while her brooding daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) scribbles suicidal poetry as if her life depended on it.

Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly play Lefty and Dusty, two musical cowpokes who sing a song called “Bad Jokes” that brings the house down.

Kevin Kline is also very funny as Guy Noir, a down-on-his-luck private investigator who provides security, slapstick and a running narration that evokes Philip Marlowe crossed with Jacques Clouseau.

Meandering throughout these and a dozen other characters is a mysterious woman in a white trench coat (Virginia Madsen), who may be the angel of death.

Or maybe she represents us? Like the woman in white, we drift though the final, bittersweet moments of a family brought together by love for music. We observe, we laugh, we cry and, ultimately, we realize how much we’ll miss these wonderful characters when the lights come up and the show is over.

These boots were made for talkin’