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A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION ****

By GUY FLATLEY

CAST: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Lily Tomlin, Garrison Keillor, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Lindsay Lohan, Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, L. Q. Jones, Maya Rudolph, Marylouise Burke

DIRECTOR: Robert Altman

SCREENWRITER: Garrison Keillor


Two forty-or-fiftysomething sisters--one blonde and girlish; the other redhaired and tart--stand in front of a fake farmhouse on the stage of a tattered theater and reminisce about their mom and pop and other eccentric kinfolk. Then, like a pair of boisterous angels, they raise their rich, full voices in a rousing country song. The people out front respond with giddy approval. Onstage and off, everyone’s having a helluva time.

We’re not in Memphis here, and we’re certainly not on Broadway. We are in fact in St. Paul at the Fitzgerald Theater, where storyteller Garrison Keillor has, on every Saturday night for more than three decades, emceed a quirky live-radio show called “A Prairie Home Companion.” There are musicians, cowboy singers, comics, and, of course, the unflappable, slyly subversive Keillor himself, spinning tall, possibly true tales from his past and making barbed observations about people and places on the Minnesota prairie and elsewhere.

Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” will undoubtedly be on the air forever. That is not the case, however, in Robert Altman’s playful cinematic spin on the man and his show. Adapted from a screenplay by Keillor and filmed, for the most part, backstage and onstage at the Fitzgerald Theater, the movie reveals the wondrously silly and sad life-and-death events that take place during the final “Prairie” broadcast. (Although the fact has not yet been made public, a Texas tycoon has purchased the radio station and intends to bulldoze the Fitzgerald, sending Keillor and his crew onto the mean streets of Minnesota.)

Among those slated to sing the unemployment blues are the warbling siblings, Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, gorgeously singing and acting their hearts out); Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), the bickering, pure-of-heart dudes who throw themselves into performing ditties that would be right at home in an outhouse; suavely clumsy security detective Guy Noir (Kevin Kline, in an astonishing turn that is both farcical and subtle); Lola (Lindsay Lohan), Yolanda’s suicide-and-poetry obsessed daughter; and GK (Garrison Keillor, who may not be the next Brad Pitt but nevertheless makes a terrific movie debut as a man who refuses to be ruffled by anything, including the prospect of being rendered jobless.) Mention must be made, too, of Tommy Lee Jones as Axeman, who pops up to shut down the “Prairie,” and Virginia Madsen as a lethally blonde stranger who may have plans of her own for that ornery Texan.

It all sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it? Well it is, but thanks to the heart and mind and unfailing talent of an 81-year-old wizard, the multilayered comedy-drama-musical is also brilliant, bawdy, hilarious and profoundly moving. Altman gracefully fills the screen with pratfalls, squabbles, and hootingly funny sex jokes. Then, when you least expect it, he pierces your heart with a fleeting allusion to lost love, or a reminder that, for each of us, death may come calling at any moment, quick and startling as the playful pluck of a guitar string. From the most unlikely, seemingly random material, the master has worked a miracle worthy to stand beside his “M*A*S*H,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Nashville,” “The Player” and “Short Cuts.”