*A Prairie Home Companion (PG-13)
Cinemark 16, Kimball's Twin Peak, Tinseltown
As the opening credits roll in Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, we stare at darkness but hear the twisting, crackling noise that's unmistakably the sound of a radio changing channels, not digitally but via a hand-held tuning knob.
Country music, baseball, a Christian evangelist, a cooking show, EZ listening, a traffic report ... and finally, a live radio variety show, broadcast from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., home of the actual public radio juggernaut "A Prairie Home Companion." It's the kind of show, says narrator Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a fumbling private eye hired for backstage security, "that died 50 years ago."
True, the appeal of the actual radio show and of the film Altman's elegy to the end of life, work and the pursuit of happiness might have limited appeal among younger audiences. But anyone who respects the master of Americana's rambling, layered style will get a kick out of this sweet, melancholic romp through the back stages of memory.
Because it is written by Garrison Keillor, master of Midwestern gloom and self-deprecation, it rarely risks sentimentality, but carries on the philosophy of Lake Wobegon: We live, we work, we suffer and die, and somewhere along the way, we might enjoy a moment of mild pleasure.
Except for two brief scenes at a fabulous railcar diner across the way, the entire film takes place inside the Fitzgerald Theater, following the last live broadcast of the show from beginning to end. A Texas company has bought the building and will tear it down shortly to build a parking lot, effectively ending a tradition and interrupting the lives of the odd tribe of performers, stagehands, sound guys and technicians who look as if they live in this dark, cluttered world of the stage.
Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, sisters who have sung together since their preteen years. Middle-aged and fading, they share an "on with the show" joie de vivre and the familiar sister act of finishing each other's sentences. Lindsay Lohan is quite appealing as Yolanda's daughter, a morose teenager scribbling suicide poems.
Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are Dusty and Lefty, who spice their singing cowboy act with dirty jokes. Virginia Madsen, an angel of death in a white trench coat, wanders the hallways preparing to help someone cross over before the night is through. Alongside the capable cast of actors are "Prairie Home" regulars, including Sue Scott, sound effects master Tom Keith and folk duo Robin and Linda Williams.
Garrison Keillor plays himself, the mild-mannered, smooth-talking master of ceremonies who announces, croons and schmoozes in his smooth baritone voice, as if doing it in his sleep.
When Yolanda beseeches him to say something about the show's end to the audience, he calmly refuses. "We don't look back in radio," he says. "Nobody gets old. Every show is your last show."
Indeed, this could be 81-year-old director Altman's last show, and it is hard to view A Prairie Home Companion as something other than a farewell. In a scene that feels improvised, Yolanda sings a hymn her dead mother used to sing, "Softly and Tenderly," and pulls Rhonda to her in an embrace as long and pure as a good night's sleep. Rhonda plaintively harmonizes on the chorus: "Come home, come home. Ye who are weary, come home ..."
Altman's gentle elegy won't be remembered as one of his best films, but as a quiet wave, the blow of a kiss goodbye.