Stars: ** 1/2
Rating: PG-13 for language and mature themes
Run Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Robert Altman has fashioned a brilliant career out of ensemble casting and ambient sound, rarely straying from the formula that has made him a legend in his own time. “Prairie” doesn’t break from the method but suffers from narrative stagnation.
Garrison Keillor heads up an all-star lineup of down-home folks who work an old-fashioned radio variety show that has withstood the test of time and the onset of high-def TV and cutting-edge electronics.
But time marches on and the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Prairie Home Companion is on its last legs, forced into the show biz graveyard by a curmudgeonly producer (Tommy Lee Jones) whose eye is on the bottom line.
“Prairie” focuses on the last hurrah of Prairie, a bittersweet tribute to the guys and gals of radio of yore warbling over the airwaves from the disintegrating majesty of the Fitzgerland Theater.
From singing siblings Yolanda and Rhonda (the excellent Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) to sandy trailhands Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) the gang shakes the dust off the classics, lending a subtle sweetness and poignant warmth.
Unfortunately screenwriter Keillor takes it over the top with a graceless tangent featuring a luminous mystery woman (Virginia Madsen) who furtively makes the rounds backstage and oversees a number of shifty melodramas.
Second strike is Kevin Kline as bumbling investigator cum security honcho Guy Noir; goofy, underwritten and indicative of a comically uneven yarn of pregnant pauses punctuated by charm. The musical numbers, backed by Keillor’s actual house band, are infused with energetic enthusiasm if not genuine talent.
If you’re tired Lindsay Lohan gracing the society pages there’s good news; the girl can act and sort of carry a tune. As Yolanda’s impetuous daughter Lola she brings unsullied teenage angst to the table, a breath of fresh air in an otherwise musty dust-up of tears and mawkish sentiment.
I’m giving Altman an A for average effort.