Liberal Midwesterners Unite: The Altman/Keillor Show

Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, from a screenplay by Garrison Keillor, based on a story by Mr. Keillor and Ken LaZebnik, plays out as neither a high-powered entertainment like Mr. Altman’s epochal Nashville (1975), nor as an amiably satirical variety show like Mr. Keillor’s biweekly program on National Public Radio. Still, it sparkles with a magic all its own as an engagingly performed piece of Midwestern whimsy and stoicism. Mr. Altman’s flair for ensemble spectacle and seamless improvisation in the midst of utter chaos is as apparent as ever.

Although the two men were rumored to have had artistic differences on the set, Mr. Altman and Mr. Keillor have somehow managed, with the help of a magnificent cast capable of the most exquisite stopwatch virtuosity, to bring an ancient radio tradition to vibrantly cinematic life. Mr. Keillor’s NPR series is apparently not to everyone’s taste as radio fare, but the few times I’ve heard it on a car radio, I have liked it well enough—which doesn’t make me that much of an authority on life around Lake Wobegon, which is never mentioned in the movie. The one time I met Mr. Keillor was at a tribute for the liberal CBS News commentator Eric Sevareid, another Midwesterner like Mr. Keillor and Mr. Altman, and this makes them all good guys in my book—that is, the liberalism and the Midwesternism.

For that matter, and politics aside, Mr. Altman is far from universally admired as a film auteur, despite all the astute cheerleading by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin at this year’s Oscars, at which the 81-year-old Mr. Altman received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Ms. Streep and Ms. Tomlin reappear prominently in A Prairie Home Companion as the Johnson Sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda (a real-life singing group whose name was borrowed for the film).

At the aforementioned Oscar ceremony, Mr. Altman startled many of us by announcing that he’d had a heart transplant some years back and was therefore living on the extra time allotted to a younger heart. In a recent interview, Mr. Altman acknowledged that Paul Thomas Anderson, a 35-year-old director he especially admires, had a technical credit in the film but was actually on hand at the insistence of the insurance company, in case Mr. Altman predeceased the completion of the film. Mr. Anderson thus joins the distinguished company of François Truffaut, who performed a similar service for the aged Jean Renoir, and Claude Chabrol, who did the same for an aged Fritz Lang. In the interview, Mr. Altman made light of the insurance company’s actuarial calculation.

Still, the much-criticized mordant tone of A Prairie Home Companion, embodied by a haunting character in a white raincoat, identified as the Angel of Death and played by the winsome Virginia Madsen, may have its origins in the intimations of mortality circling like vultures around the director’s chair. The Angel claims two lives during the course of the film and is moving toward a crowded table of fearful survivors with a warm smile on her face for a third victim or more. Then again, in the film, the show itself is under a death sentence by a Texas conglomerate intent on demolishing the Fitzgerald Theatre in Saint Paul, Minn., and turning it into a parking lot.

In real life, Mr. Keillor himself engineered the renaming of the theater to honor the centenary of St. Paul native F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of America’s greatest novelists. Nonetheless, when Mr. Keillor’s screen character is asked by the other members of the company to say something over the air to alert the listeners (as well as the audience in the theater itself) to the imminent extinction of the show, the Keillor character refuses. Every performance, he declares, should be played out as if it were the last performance. And the audience should not be burdened with any whimpering and whining from the performers.

The point is that the movie would have been a more trivial enterprise without the shadow of death hovering over it. Not only that, but the laughs—and there are many, I assure you—would not have been as uproarious without the feelings of mortality to deepen the humor. It can be argued that some of the biggest laughs came from the raucous off-color humor of the singing-cowboy team of Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, respectively). The pleasure of anticipation on each cowboy’s face as he waits, in turn, for his partner’s punch line to be delivered with consummate timing was part of the warm satisfaction I felt with the process. Some of the reviewers complained that the jokes were bad and old. All I know is that I laughed my head off, if only to exorcize the Angel of Death and Texas conglomerates and the apparent futility of liberal jokes directed at the Bush administration and its ever more insidious follies.

I even liked Kevin Kline’s elegant clumsiness as Guy Noir, one of Mr. Keillor’s most inspired radio creations. But hearing it is one thing, hearing it and seeing it quite another—and much more difficult. That is why all of the marvelous P.G. Wodehouse’s characters read better than they play, even with the most accomplished flesh-and-blood actors. Radio and book readings on tape can sometimes allow the imagination to roam freely into areas in which the cinema can only stumble and fall because of its all-too-lifelike literalness. In his very difficult task, Mr. Kline comes admirably close to translating the absurdism of Mr. Keillor’s radio version of the character into its cinematic equivalent with a mixture of physical grace and disciplined stylization.

Special mention should be made of a hilarious routine employing the talents of Tom Keith, the real-life radio show’s sound-effects man, in concert with Mr. Keillor and other members of the company in a surreal commercial with the mimicked sounds of chimpanzees and pit bulls, while Maya Rudolph, a pregnant stage manager in the movie, employs her formidable deadpan virtuosity to steal a scene from Mr. Kline.

Lindsay Lohan plays Meryl Streep’s suicide-obsessed daughter and unfurls her ingénue good looks to deliver a very debatable rendition of “Frankie and Johnny” that will probably never be preserved in a time capsule. Still, I thought she fit very snugly and serviceably into the waves of collegial geniality presided over by Mr. Keillor and generated by the collective expertise of Ms. Streep, Ms. Tomlin, Mr. Harrelson and Mr. Reilly, along with many unbilled participants in Mr. Keillor’s radio show and a palpably real (but never obtrusive) theater audience.

Of course, radio was never exactly like this, and a veil of pure fantasy demands a massive suspension of disbelief. But there may be no middle ground with this movie, no fussy bookkeeping over strengths and flaws: You can either love it or dismiss it. I happened to love it for making me forget I was looking at a movie for 105 minutes. The rest is rationalization.