Welcome for the last time to A Prairie Home Companion, brought to you from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, by Garrison Keillor, a crew of movie stars having a ball playing dress-up, director Robert Altman in an uncharacteristically genial mood and, of course, Powdermilk Biscuits. This is the last live broadcast--well, not live; we're watching a movie--of a show that's been on the radio "since Jesus was in third grade," a turn of phrase that doesn't sound so cynical when you consider that most of the songs being performed tonight are old gospel numbers of the "meet on that beautiful shore" variety. The show can't linger here on the near shore because a Texas conglomerate recently bought station WLT and will be knocking down the Fitzgerald Theater as soon as its walking, yodeling relics of Americana have shuffled offstage. You might think this act of wanton cultural desecration would be halted by an angel of God--one of them happens to be drifting around in a white raincoat, positioning herself so that light bulbs shine behind her golden hair--but she's been sent on a different mission, and besides, she seems to retain just the ghost of a grudge against Garrison Keillor.
She's not the only character to do so. And yet, considering that he's the originator of the real Prairie Home Companion, author of the screenplay and emcee of this simulated broadcast, Keillor is so becomingly modest (or is it Norwegianly dour?) that he doesn't star in his own movie. The outstanding male actor in the ensemble cast is Kevin Kline, playing Keillor's private-eye alter ego, Guy Noir. Kline's performance is essentially a series of pratfalls, each of them its own little poem--and not a Hopkins poem, either. Herrick. The outstanding actress is Meryl Streep, here draped in thrift-shop layers of country-singer clothes, as Lily Tomlin's sister and stage partner. Tomlin plays the tough, self-contained alto of the act. Streep is the outgoing soprano who bursts forth so brilliantly, even when miserable, that she could supply all the sunlight that Minnesota (and Keillor) lack.
A Prairie Home Companion is surely the bounciest, cheeriest musical I've ever seen on the subject of death and failure. It's brightened by cinematographer Ed Lachman (who lights everything and everyone as if for the stage), by dozens of mildly off-color jokes (recited in an unbroken string by cowboy singers Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) and of course by Altman, whose unflagging energy and delight in actorly collisions make A Prairie Home Companion into a sort of one-set, real-time Nashville.
That would be Nashville without the scope and ambition. On the plus side, though, this movie has Lindsay Lohan.