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A little oddity on the 'Prairie'

Robert Altman directs 'A Prairie Home Companion,' based on Garrison Keillor's radio show.

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The artistic union of Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor was inevitable. Altman has always had a great affinity for making movies about the mores of America, its sorrows and cynicism, and Keillor, in his long-running syndicated radio show and the many books he has spun off from it, has - with less cynicism - mined a similar patch of terrain.

The movie "A Prairie Home Companion," which Altman ("The Player," "Gosford Park") directed from a script by Keillor, that incorporates many of the elements of the radio show, is an odd duck even by the usual odd standards by which we have come to know Altman.

For one thing, the movie isn't really about the actual radio show, even though it goes by the same name and features many of the show's regulars. Keillor is referred to as G.K. and the show, far from being a hit, is a small-time affair heard locally each week in St. Paul, Minn. Worse, it's about to be canceled. As a result of a corporate changeover, the Saturday night show we are experiencing both on and off stage is its last. The cast members know this, but not their loyal fans in the audience.

For this conceit to take hold, we have to suspend disbelief and imagine that the well-oiled "Prairie Home Companion" on display is not, in fact, the same one that legions of followers worldwide tune into each week. Otherwise, we would wonder why such a commotion is being made over a cancellation that undoubtedly will soon be rectified by an eager new owner.

This may seem like a small point, but it's a bit like being asked to mourn the final taping of a cable TV show called "Seinfeld" prior to its untimely axing. Instead of choosing to base his script on his popular radio show, Keillor might have done better to freshly conceive a new one. As a result, an uneasy note of self-congratulation creeps into the movie: We all know that in reality old G.K. is doing just fine.

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