MOVIE REVIEW- Nashville, MN: 'Prairie Home...' does Altman proud

A Prairie Home Companion is assured of two audiences: fans of Robert Altman and fans of Garrison Keillor. Both will have a great time, as will just about anyone lured by the rootsy music, the comedy, or the novel casting.

The story concerns the final broadcast of a fictional radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, which is very much like the real NPR radio show A Prairie Home Companion, and likewise hosted by Keillor (who plays himself, or a variation on himself).

For 30 years the program has broadcast live from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, but the originating station, WLT, has been sold to a Texas company that considers A Prairie Home Companion a liability. They're sending the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) to pull the plug after tonight's show.

Our narrator is the appropriately named Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a former private eye who handles security for the show and speaks as if he's still in a pulp novel. "She had a Mount Rushmore t-shirt on and those guys never looked so happy– especially Jefferson and Lincoln," he says describing The Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen), who wears a white trenchcoat as she lurks backstage.

Compared to Nashville– as A Prairie Home Companion must inevitably be– the new film is much simpler in plot and structure, but still lets Altman show his mastery at creating realistic franticness in a make-believe world.

Among the stars of the show are the Johnson Girls, Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), the remaining half of a family quartet. When her daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) asks who the Carter Family are, Yolanda explains, "They're like us, only famous." The women harmonize well, and Streep would get my vote if she went on American Idol. Lohan is less impressive when she gets her chance to shine, but she handles her acting well enough against the stiff competition.

Another popular duo is Dusty (John C. Reilly) and Lefty (Woody Harrelson), a pair of saddle tramps who specialize in risqué songs ("I'll Show You My Moonshine if You Show Me Your Jugs"). Their "Bad Jokes" number is a highlight.

Old singer Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones) has something going with Evelyn, the Lunch Lady (Marylouise Burke), and assistant stage manager Molly (Maya Rudolph) does what she can to keep things running smoothly.

Keillor, who also wrote the script and many of the song lyrics, is an unflappable, stabilizing presence, onstage and off. He sings with everyone, reads faux commercials ("...the Associated Federation of Organizations– somewhere there's an organization just for you"). Asked about the program's imminent demise he says, "Every show's your last show. That's my philosophy."

If Kline's comic brilliance is appreciated, he could win another Oscar, but he makes it look too easy. Stealing a couple of hilarious scenes is sound effects man Tom Keith. He's one of several people and other elements– including Guy Noir and the actual set in the actual theater– taken from the parallel universe of the real radio show, which is like the fictional one, only famous.

A Prairie Home Companion is a tall tale about tellers of tall tales, and Robert Altman stands tallest of all. It's not his most challenging work, but he shows that at 81 he's still one of our best directors.

Every review is my last review, and if this really is my last, I'll go out smiling.