When word got out that director Robert Altman (“M*A*S*H,” “Gosford Park”) was to team up with the professor of down-home, campy humor Garrison Keillor (radio’s 32-year-old “A Prairie Home Companion”) himself, a couple of concerns emerged: If the film would be over-inundated by Altman’s highly individualistic, love-it-or-hate-it directorial style, and also, so late in his life, if he would he finally bring home an Oscar (he’s been nominated for five).

The fictional account of a variety radio show is modeled, of course, from Keillor’s own radio program, comprised of numerous folk and bluegrass performances, including many commercial jingles.

The plot pivots around the show’s last performance (due to a corporate buy-out), and only those involved are aware of it. As the show slowly winds down to its inevitable end, drama builds around death, a love affair from the past, the possibility of saving the show and Virginia Madsen (“Sideways”) as an angel with an unknown mission.

Those who were inspired to catch Altman’s latest because of sentimentality toward the actual radio show (such as myself) won’t find complete satisfaction. In tandem with the hilarious material mined from the show, an absurdist, film noir twist is added. The story is told through the eyes of private detective Guy Noir (Kevin Kline, “De-Lovely”), hired to handle security for the show’s final airing.

Opening the film with a private-eye-in-a-diner-spoof monologue, there, is at times, an uncomfortable incongruity between the relaxed humor of Garrison Keillor (playing himself) and the purposely stereotypical noir characters.

Although not a “mockumentary,” the film’s folk/bluegrass context – as well as its dead-pan, surreal humor – is reminiscent of Christopher Guest’s “A Mighty Wind.” Characteristic of Altman, the film keeps a slow, steady pace from the beginning (although not as grueling as 1993’s “Short Cuts”). Even though the mounting subplot of Virginia Madsen’s mysterious presence keeps viewers on their toes, the memorable material comes from superb combinations of characters.

Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep, “Angels in America” and Lily Tomlin, “Orange County”) are two of the most consistent laughs in the film. Lindsay Lohan (“Mean Girls”), as Yolanda’s daughter Lola, doesn’t overdo her role as the adolescent who writes suicidal poetry amid the revelry around her. Keillor can only be himself; nothing more is needed. His stories and jokes are in and of themselves time capsules of an older, different America. His humor is a genre by itself.

Woody Harrelson (“The Thin Red Line”) and John C. Reilly (“The Aviator”) play two singing cowhands and provide genial, if trite, comedic relief. Their last tune, “Bad Jokes,” is a neverending motley of (you guessed it) hilariously awful jokes “Why do they call is PMS? Because Mad Cow was already taken”).

Altman seems comfortable throughout the film. Non-conventional cinematography is the norm, but not so overwhelming as to appear overtly indie. As expected, it’s clear that he lets his actors deviate from the script, resulting in dialogues that border on the tedious but maintain a voyeuristic edge. Scenes where Streep’s character waxes nostalgic over her long-gone affair with Keillor sometimes push the envelope of patience.

But any loss of momentum is immediately recovered in the performance scenes, where no overdubbing is present. Streep has an honest-to-God solid voice that fits well, sometimes humorously, with Tomlin’s scratchy alto. And Lohan, it seems, could carve a few more paychecks for herself in the country-music business. Finally convinced to sing one of her own songs at the end of the show, she tells the band to play a blues in any key, and proceeds to belt out an extremely catchy, honky-tonk tale of a woman murdering her husband.

It’s unclear if Altman is attempting to draw any meaning from such an odd combination of genres (including religious allegory). The film’s cathartic moments come from off-hand comments from Keillor (“I want to be remembered, but I don’t want to tell people to remember me”) and interactions between the show’s principals.

This may be Altman’s last film. As Keillor put it to a distraught performer, “Every show is your last show.” There are optimistic plans for another feature in 2007, but this is a near-perfect late-career film for Altman, who is giving as much gusto to his work as he ever has.

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

A Prairie Home Companion
At the Michigan Theater, Showcase and Quality 16

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