Minnesotans don't like to draw attention to themselves, and the man who's been pointing that out for over 30 years, drawing oodles of attention to both him and them in the process, plays the emcee in A Prairie Home Companion, Robert Altman's cockeyed salute to a radio program that seems like it's been around as long as radio itself. In a role he was born to play, Garrison Keillor lumbers on and off the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., launching into one shaggy-dog story after another, whether he's on the air or not. And it isn't entirely clear how we're supposed to take him. As a sage? A windbag? Both? The conceit is that it's the show's last night, the theater having been bought by a Texas conglomerate that intends to turn it into a parking lot. Keillor and his guests, played by such luminaries as Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, are ghosts. They just don't know it.
Improvising to beat the band, just as they did at this year's Oscar telecast before handing Altman a Lifetime Achievement Award, Streep and Tomlin are the Johnson Sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda, all that's left of what used to be a quartet. They still perform, but something's clearly missing. Yolanda seems sad and tired, Rhonda seems bitter. And like everybody else in the movie, they're stuck in the past, swapping stories they've swapped so many times before that even they don't remember whose they were to begin with. Alas, the stories don't add up to much. We assume we're being led somewhere, but we're not. Theirs are shaggy-dog stories, too. Altman's always worked by indirection, finding his way to a theme and allowing us to find our own way. Here, he seems to have lost his sense of direction. Though based on a script by Keillor, the movie never gels. It feels like a first draft.
And yet, as with any first draft, there are things worth keeping. Duded up to look like they'd be quite at home on the range, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly give faces to those "Prairie Home" companions, Dusty and Lefty. And unlike Streep and Tomlin, these two could actually pass as a singing act, their voices the very essence of popping open a can of beans while sitting around the campfire. But they're given even less of a storyline than the sisters, winning us over instead with a bad-joke routine that turns out to be something of a showstopper. Also nice to have around, although he perhaps belongs in a different movie, is Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, the private eye who's read too many Mickey Spillane novels. Now in charge of security, Kline's Guy combines The Thin Man's Nick Charles and The Pink Panther's Inspector Clouseau - a bumbling fool with a certain debonair air. And he somehow justifies Keillor having given flesh to what has heretofore been a figment of his imagination.
Don't expect any news from Lake Wobegon, though; Keillor is content to play a minor role in his own show, although there's something in there about him and Yolanda having once kept the firelights burning. One wishes that Keillor and Altman had taken all these hints and turned them into something. The movie might well have been a worthy follow-up to Altman's Nashville, which it otherwise resembles in certain ways, the Fitzgerald Theater sounding a faint echo of the Grand Ole Opry. But Nashville, set during the American Bicentennial, cast its net across the entire country, capturing the sense of doom that followed in the wake of all those political assassinations. A Prairie Home Companion, by comparison, seems stuck - hermetically sealed - in that theater (and in the past). It's about a show that was old-fashioned even when newly fashioned, "on the air since Jesus was in third grade." And for better or worse, it goes out the same way it came in, not with a bang but with a whimper.