Idol Chatter

Oscar winner and director Robert Altman has long been known for making movies filled with unusual characters and rambling, improvisational dialogue which viscerally dissect a certain segment of society–country singers in “Nashville,” Hollywood execs in “The Player,” hired help in “Gosford Park”–which is what makes him the perfect choice to tell a story about the lovable cast of a folksy radio show on the evening of its last broadcast. “Prairie Home Companion,” the movie, is based loosely on humorist Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show of the same name, which broadcasts from mythical Lake Wobegan. The movie drifts back and forth between the dressing rooms and the stage as a variety of characters reflect on their hopes and dreams, their loves and losses, while waiting to take their final bow.

If you are not a fan of Keillor’s aw-shucks storytelling–and I never have been–don’t worry. The movie is much more than commercials for products like “Powder Milk Biscuits,” or bawdy but lame jokes followed by sweet renditions of your favorite hymns. Keillor himself is only on the stage for a small portion of the movie, and Lake Wobegan is not mentioned at all. The movie is actually much darker in tone than the studio advertising would lead you to believe. The movie is about nothing less than life and death–literally and metaphorically. There is the death of one of the characters, and also the death of tradition, with the show being taken off the air by a greedy corporate businessman. At the same time, there is the promise that the values and traditions these folks hold dear will actually be carried on after all, through Lola (Lindsay Lohan in a surprisingly good performance), the rebellious daughter of cast member Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep), who reluctantly begins jotting down the stories of the cast members in her diary.

“Prairie” is, in spite of the many mesmerizing performances by an Oscar-studded cast, a slightly uneven tale. The pace of the film lags at times, and the storyline involving an angel and the show’s company manager puzzled me for most of the movie. While Altman might be saying, with a touch of his trademark cynicism, that the old cliche “You can’t go home again” is, in fact, true, in the end, “Prairie” is still a celebration of the value of community, the value of faith, and the importance of bearing witness to both.

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