For a film about death and endings, A Prairie Home Companion is a cracking good time — a warm, golden bauble within which to shelter, like the radio show that inspired it, from the misery and ennui that engulf us in and out of the multiplex. Directed by Robert Altman from a screenplay by Garrison Keillor, the movie is a happy collaboration between two crusty souls, in all respects an unlikely match save for their mutual love of the local, the prankish, the anachronistic and the amateur. And who better than Altman — who thought nothing of opening his masterpiece, The Long Goodbye, with an 11-minute tracking shot of Elliot Gould’s rumpled Philip Marlowe trying to find gourmet cat food — to interpret Keillor’s digressive sensibility, his knack for creating the hermetic space in which to play out everything that matters in this life?
Like Keillor’s rambling narratives, Altman’s restless camera pokes around the musty corners of life and art — Prairie is shot almost entirely back-and front-stage in the famous Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, from which the show is broadcast live each week — rooting out laughter and heartbreak among people a harsher world would dismiss as losers or has-beens. There isn’t a soul you could call a success in this backwater, unless it’s Keillor himself, a shambling, unphotogenic bulldog of a philosopher in red tie and sneakers, palpably uncomfortable in his body yet nimbly improvising his way out of a slew of backstage crises. You can see why radio is his ideal forum.
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Longtime collaborators like Sue Scott and Tim Russell appear in the movie, and Keillor and Altman have tweaked the show’s favorite fictional characters: Kevin Kline, puffed up with bombast and protocol, makes a very funny Guy Noir, down on his luck and trying to wrestle a few shreds of dignity out of his job as the theater’s security guard, while Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are a perfectly synchronized Dusty and Lefty, genial cowboy troubadours making hay out of fart jokes and off-color ditties. The movie’s most inspired additions, though, are Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), country-music-singing sisters reduced in middle age to touring the county-fair circuit. Serial interrupters, the sisters prattle away, fondly recalling their salad days, while Yolanda’s daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan in lank hair and glasses) rolls her eyes and buries herself in suicidal iambic pentameter.
Prairie may seem like a step out on a folksy limb for Altman, but the movie is all of a graceful piece with the love of performance that has informed so many of his films, from the masterful Nashville through the oddly flat Kansas City to the faux dance documentary The Company. Like that beautiful but nebulous confection, Prairie makes for a wonderful concert movie, but its pacing is looser and more exuberant, its back stories vibrant, bawdy and intimate. There’s a dark side, of course, and not just because the Minnesotans it lampoons and lionizes are “people who believe it could be worse, and will be.” Despite the acquisition of a spanking-new transplanted ticker, which he impishly announced while accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Oscar ceremony, Altman is looking squarely at his own mortality here, and so, it seems, is Keillor (who, at only 60, is more than 20 years Altman’s junior).
Unlike the improbably long-running radio series that has brought solace to millions who don’t get out much on a weekend night, the show in Prairie is on its last legs, stalked on the one hand by the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) — a bottom-line executive who’s shutting down the unprofitable joint — and on the other by an unusually pneumatic Angel of Death in the trench-coated shape of Virginia Madsen. But the movie’s tone, when not gleefully filthy, is wistful, elegiac and, above all, accepting. Nothing much happens, unless you count life (a pregnant stagehand is ready to drop her baby), love (unrequited) and death (“The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” the Angel whispers). “All the world’s so sad and dreary,” belts out Streep, radiant in Bonnie Raitt hair and frilly frocks. Perhaps, but A Prairie Home Companion offers one powerful antidote: Don’t improve yourself; enjoy yourself. Get into trouble. Fall in love with the wrong person. Be a happy loser. Nothing is forever, so why not whistle in the dark and put on a show?
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION | Directed by ROBERT ALTMAN | Written by GARRISON KEILLOR from a story by KEILLOR and KEN LaZEBNIK | Produced by DAVID LEVY, TONY JUDGE, JOSHUA ASTRACHAN, WREN ARTHUR and ALTMAN | Released by Picturehouse | At selected theaters