Like the Grand Ole Opry plopped into a fragrant barn at the county fair, Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion befits its roots in frosty Minnesota soil through its worldview, Buddhist by way of Scandinavia: Life is about suffering. The wind chill is below zero and so is your spouse; bone-dry Pastor Ingqvist beats his pulpit and you take it like a slap in the face; the cows will make their mess, you'll clean it up, and they'll do it again, every day, until, God willing, you die. No one in Keillor's Lake Wobegon actually complains (they persevere), and no one expects a miracle. Things can always get worse, and they do but it'll be over soon enough. Rhubarb pie and a toe-tapping ditty about the basic unfairness (and occasional joys) of life at least help pass the time on long Saturday nights in front of the transistor radio.
Maybe Keillor was countering the counterculture by sending his first news from Lake Wobegon over the airwaves in the times-are-a-changin'-back year of 1974. Or maybe the emcee's playfully slippery tone alternately parodying and celebrating mid-American nostalgia for old-fashioned hard work, righteous self-pity and what-the-hell-let's-strike-up-the-band allowed that only our close attention to a speaker's nuances would prevent another Tricky Dick. (Is that condescension or inspiration in Keillor's mock-heroic lilt? Might it be both?) Whatever the case, the host's comically longwinded monologues on life in the invisibly small town have become damn near seditious in wartime. Here is the rare popular broadcaster who's dedicated to counting casualties not just poor Junior overseas, but Mom and Pop and their corner store too.
Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion is something of a different story, even though Keillor wrote it (for the director's approval, of course). What the maker of Nashville sees in the show, predictably, is not a self-made bandleader and oddball raconteur so much as another democratic ensemble of musicians and assorted stagehands who come together in the service of maintaining their insular artists' colony in an inhospitable climate. Tellingly, Altman never shows the audience: For this gently fictionalized backstage musical set at the show's real home in St. Paul, the audience is Robert Altman, and so is the master of ceremonies. Keillor, clad in trademark suit and red Saucony sneakers, appears more as absentminded professor of non sequitur studies than as genius star of the show; his "GK," introduced in his boxer shorts, still ironing his trousers only minutes before curtain call, would rather perform backstage than onstage perhaps because his stories at the microphone here are limited to screwball pitches for duct tape and Powdermilk Biscuits ("made from whole wheat raised by Norwegian bachelor farmers so you know they're good for you"), with nary a word about Wobegon.
There are characters in the movie: the Johnson sisters from Oshkosh, Rhonda and Yolanda (Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep), county-fair-circuit singers whose loopy chats before showtime wander from the dangers of glazed doughnuts to the pleasures of rubber bands; the Old Trailhands, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly), a pair of bad-joke-cracking cowboy crooners; and a hardboiled but clumsy security guard called Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a familiar figure from Keillor's actual show. The flimsiness of these characters ends up adding to the movie's charm: These aren't really Midwestern radio performers so much as movie stars who've signed up for one more improv party with Altman. The director is chiefly interested in capturing the musical performances, which carry a casually infectious, low-key energy, even (or especially) when the stars are off-key.
Keillor's modest subservience to Altman's group dynamic feels downright gallant, and in the context of the veteran director's most humanistic movie by a wide margin, it certainly has its rewards. Spread across the dozen-odd players, the focus is soft; the movie's dressing rooms, stacked floor to ceiling with showbiz bric-a-brac, are lit as if by candle, the better for everyone in the cast to shine when it's their turn. The mood is exceedingly chatty but laid-back, which is new for the 81-year-old Altman. The director amends his copyrighted style ever so slightly: The dialogue here doesn't overlap so much as cascade; the zooms don't suggest a biologist squinting through a microscope, but someone an old man, I might as well say it leaning in for a tiny kiss.
The conceit allowing this warm elegy is that a corporate "axeman" from Texas (Tommy Lee Jones) is on his way to close down the theater and the show along with it which at any other time for Altman would've occasioned the director's defiant resistance or bitter vindication rather than what we have here, which is something closer to Oh, well it was fun while it lasted. What's most Keilloresque about the movie is its stoic Midwestern shrug in the face of imminent extinction. To give the artists the semblance of a chance to survive the corporate menace, Keillor's script conjures a patently absurd angel of death (Virginia Madsen in a femme fatale's trench coat), who could ostensibly eliminate the threat with a wave of her hand. But Keillor and Altman know that there are forces much greater than fiction or even Fate these days. The corporations have become bigger than God which is a cynic's joke. The optimist's warmth inspired by Keillor's Wobegon resolve and Altman's twilight gentility is that the artists will endure anyway.