Pop Culture

Keillor, Altman disagree on ‘Prairie Home’

The director says it’s all about death. The screenwriter says no, it’s really a funny movie, not a dark one.

Filmgoers can decide who’s right when the movie version of “A Prairie Home Companion,” directed by Robert Altman, opens Friday.

Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations, said “Prairie Home” should have two built-in audiences: fans of Garrison Keillor’s show, which draws 4 million listeners each week on more than 580 public radio stations, and fans of Altman’s directing.

And having teen queen Lindsay Lohan in the movie is an interesting twist, Dergarabedian said.

“Generally speaking, this is not a movie that is going to appeal to younger moviegoers,” he said.

“A Prairie Home Companion” combines the cozy-as-a-goose-down-comforter yet sometimes barbed humor of Keillor’s long-running radio show with Altman’s penchant for rule-breaking cinema.

Altman’s movie paints a bleak picture of the radio industry, with Keillor starring as the announcer of a folksy musical variety show — much like his own and with the same name — about to be shut down by new corporate owners.

“This film is about death,” the 81-year-old Altman said at a news conference also attended by Keillor and many of the movie’s stars at the “Prairie Home” world premiere May 3 in St. Paul. (Like other Altman films, “Prairie Home” features an ensemble cast, this time including Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Virginia Madsen, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Tommy Lee Jones and Maya Rudolph.)

Keillor, who wrote the screenplay, disagreed with Altman on the movie’s tone.

“I don’t think it’s a dark film. It’s a very funny film,” Keillor told The Associated Press.

Lohan’s character — a mopey teenager wearing torn jeans — may write poems about suicide, but they’re funny and cliched, Keillor said. “But then when a character (in the movie) actually dies, she’s really moved by it, and she’s moved to tears — real tears — and ‘why are we not talking about this on the air?”’ he said.

Even that character’s death is comic, Keillor said. The old man, stripped down to boxer shorts with raspberries on them, expires in his dressing room while waiting for his lover as the Mills Brothers play on the stereo.

“If you had to die, which most people will have to, you wouldn’t mind dying in those circumstances, with your heart full of hope,” Keillor said.

Powdermilk Biscuits make an appearanceOf his own performance, Keillor says he was “OK” in one scene, chewing an apple while speaking to Madsen, who plays a luminescent, blond Angel of Death in a white trench coat.

“And I think I do well chewing an apple. I don’t think I walk on and off stage all that well,” Keillor said.

Famously shy, Keillor says his goal during the movie was to not appear awkward.

“That was my mantra during the whole shoot. Be appropriate. Don’t act. Don’t be caught trying to act. Just follow your route. Walk from here to there. Say your lines. And just hope to God this is not too painful or embarrassing in the end,” he said.

Working with pros, such as Streep, made that easier, Keillor said.

“You’re standing next to one of the great actresses of moviedom, who’s at the peak of her power. So you know where the audience is going to be looking. They’re not going to be looking at the tall, dour man standing next to her who may very well be her limo driver or her accountant. They’re going to be looking at Miss Streep,” Keillor said.

Shot in just five weeks last summer for about $10 million, “A Prairie Home Companion” explores every nook and cranny of the Fitzgerald Theater, the longtime home of Keillor’s show in downtown St. Paul.

“Prairie Home” fans will find much to enjoy in the movie. While Keillor does not deliver his usual “News from Lake Wobegon” monologue and his make-believe home of Lake Wobegon is never mentioned, the movie does feature commercials for fake sponsors Powdermilk Biscuits and the American Duct Tape Council. And Kline steals scenes as the tough-talking radio private eye Guy Noir, who’s now in charge of the show’s security.

There also is plenty of music from such performers as the Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band, Robin and Linda Williams, and Jearlyn Steele. Harrelson and Reilly have a bawdy turn as singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty on “Bad Jokes,” and Lohan belts out “Frankie and Johnny.”