After five decades of filmmaking, five Oscar nominations and the adoration of countless Hollywood stars, 81-year-old director Robert Altman has pretty much done it all. Oddly enough, he’s chosen Garrison Keillor’s long-running (31 years) radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, as a cinematic meditation on his own mortality.
A variety show steeped in Midwest Americana, Keillor’s radio program revels in corny jokes, skits and lots of old-timey music. It’s an unlikely fit for the cynical, ironic Altman, but obviously the director finds something personally affecting in the show’s sleepy charm. He mounts a loving and respectful tribute to defiantly do-it-yourself entertainment without getting overly sentimental.
The genial backstage fable follows the last-ever, rainy-day broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. After being sold to a Texas conglomerate, the host radio station pulls the plug on the show, and its longtime venue — the Fitzgerald Theater — is slated for demolition. The film follows the onstage performances and backstage banter of the soon-to-be unemployed cast. The mood is much like attending the wake of a beloved and ridiculous uncle; brought together by loss, everyone laughs at familiar jokes and sings half-forgotten songs. As one character casually remarks, “This radio show is the kind of program that died 50 years ago, only someone forgot to tell the performers.”
In fact, the specter of death lurks in nearly every scene, emphasizing the impending mortality of both the show and its cast. Lindsay Lohan is Lola, the suicide-obsessed daughter of singer Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep). A white trench-coated angel of death (played awkwardly by Virginia Madsen) stalks a member of the company. Even Keillor himself muses, “Every show’s your last show. That’s my philosophy.”
All the while Altman’s graceful camera prowls the theater capturing the cast members as they struggle to keep themselves together for one last show. There really isn’t much in the way of drama, since more than half the movie is dominated by music, but Altman expertly captures the improvised chaos of live performance. There are a few undercooked subplots, but the relationships between the characters provide most of the film’s charm. Streep and Lily Tomlin indulge in some terrific off-the-cuff interactions as the singing Johnson sisters. Kevin Kline hints at the kind of Clouseau he might have made in the Pink Panther remake as Guy Noir, a down-on-his-luck private eye reduced to backstage doorman. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are amusing as singing trail-hands Dusty and Lefty, and Tommy Lee Jones makes a cameo as a corporate heavy sent to close down the show for good.
Presiding over everything is the laid-back, unflappable Keillor, a sort of Lutheran version of Will Rogers. The only emotion he displays is one of resigned bemusement. Even the sudden death of a cast member is casually dismissed by a show-must-go-on philosophy. When asked whether something should be said to the audience, he snorts, “I don’t do eulogies.” It’s all very Minnesotan.
Fans of the radio show will probably enjoy the film for its funhouse mirror view of their beloved revue — though some may be dismayed that stalwarts Tim Russell and Sue Scott are relegated to minimal characters.
But for the uninitiated, the story meanders far too much to resonate, and Altman’s relentless focus on mortality dampens the show’s amiable charm.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].