Where All the Actors Are Above Average

Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

Lohan and Keillor in A Prairie Home Companion

It starts with Morning Edition. Then, perhaps, a dose of All Things Considered while driving home from work. From there, it grows: Car Talk on the weekends, Fresh Air in the afternoons. Most people can control their habit, but some go further, plunging into such obscurities as The Thistle & Shamrock and The Infinite Mind, wondering if Liane Hansen and Will Shortz are having an affair, and donating to pledge drives. The point of no return, however, lies further. The familiar opening, “Oh, hear that old piano, from down the avenue … ,” comes on the radio and you smile. You’ve become a fan of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

Keillor has been broadcasting his weekly variety show, on and off, for 32 years. With its polite music, folksy tone, gentle humor, and liberal outlook, it’s the essence of public radio and a reluctantly acquired taste. (For a generation, A Prairie Home has been the soundtrack of being stuck in the car with your parents.) This week Keillor’s hand-built creation goes Hollywood, with the release of A Prairie Home Companion (Picturehouse), the movie. Directed by Robert Altman, the cast is a dream team of cinematic respectability: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, Lily Tomlin, and Virginia Madsen. The wild card is teen star Lindsay Lohan, who must wonder what the hell the movie is about. A Prairie Home Companion features in-jokes and recurring characters from the radio show—if you think Guy Noir is the name of a perfume, expect to be confused by bursts of audience applause. (It’s Kline who plays the beloved Noir, a detective with a gift for rococo metaphors.)

In the opening scene, we learn that the family-owned radio station that broadcasts A Prairie Home has been bought by a Texas Christian conglomerate, and we witness the behind-the-scenes mischief of the show’s last performance. (Naturally, the Texas angle sets up a few potshots at the president). With a theatrical setting, a large ensemble cast, and musical numbers, Altman and his crew are in their own tailored version of heaven. The camera roams between floors and rooms as though it were a phantom of the Opry. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are guitar-playing cowboys, while Streep and Tomlin are a sister act of country singers. They are joined by real musicians from the show, the Guys All-Star Shoe Band, and other regulars. But the movie’s center of gravity is Keillor himself, who sings, narrates, and strides around telling long-winded anecdotes like an avuncular Ancient Mariner. He even gets a convincing hug out of Streep.

Keillor’s voice has spawned a thousand metaphors, and here’s mine: It soaks and coats the room like merlot swishing around a glass. It’s soothing and warm and slightly intoxicating. As a physical presence, he’s got a touch of the sasquatch. He’s jowly, wary. He looms over the microphone as though he were about to inhale it. Yet his face becomes open and earnest when he sings, and he has a nice trick of switching in midconversation to his radio voice. The show’s material celebrates a quaint, analog, friendly America, specifically the variety found in the upper Midwest with its taciturn farmers and dour descendents of Scandinavians. (St. Paul, Minn., is the show’s home.) Keillor sings ad jingles for fake products between songs, and, in the movie, the songs themselves run along the lines of mountain ballads like “Goodbye to My Mama” (which Streep and Tomlin nail) and corny cowpoke numbers such as “Bad Jokes.”

Depending on your tolerance for twang and puns, this is entertainment. I confess that during some of the musical bits, I wished for some distracting scenery to look at. What sustains the movie is its ornery spirit, like a stubborn drunk at closing time. Keillor (the character) refuses to make a speech or in any way acknowledge that this is the last night of the show. He even refuses to pause for silence when one of the old singers dies backstage. It’s an attractive creed: We do our job well and that’s enough and then we are gone—we don’t ask people to remember us or make special claims for our “artistic” place in the world. It’s a shtick of aggressive modesty: Keillor would have you believe that his job is no more special than working at a car park, but we laugh at that joke because we know it’s not true. It’s an act.

My guess is that Keillor’s shambling gait belies a control-freak nature, but he loosens up with Altman, and the movie has a slapdash casualness. The improvised scenes get cut off at odd moments, and in Altmanesque fashion some stories never get finished. It’s a bubbly, discursive affair, and unlike so many movies, the actors actually look like they are having fun. Streep does best with the open-ended dialogue rhythms, and Lohan is very natural, even though her big song doesn’t quite come off—it’s too Disney. The Prairie-devoted will be content despite the lack of the show’s biggest hit, the News From Lake Wobegon (more orneriness I suppose). Teenagers and other members of the Prairie-tormented generation will want to consider inflicting a self-sustained wound before showtime. By the movie’s own reckoning, it’s a success: a dented, mysterious item that you would find buried in a secondhand store—a relic of the old, weird America that Keillor so loves.