Garrison Keillor's live radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, began some 30 odd years ago (and continues today) as a fictional reality and a gentle Scandinavian-Midwestern farce. Each week, a group of real entertainers would get together and really perform ... except there was something a little unreal about it all. Their tongues were firmly tucked into their cheeks, and yet, they could still talk, sing and play their guitars and fiddles beautifully.
As host, Keillor would do fake commercials for duct tape and Norwegian herring, and tell tall woebegone tales of his little Minnesota hometown and its cast of characters. This all became, you could say, a cottage industry for him. Now it's a movie, written by Keillor, directed by Robert Altman, and featuring Keillor's longtime musical Prairie Home companions, along with some movie stars playing fictional entertainers on the fictional final performance of his real radio show. It's postmodern enough to make a Dadaist's eyes cross.
So what do you get when you put together two graying icons of modern performing arts? Well, first, wonderful music, performed by sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin), country boys Lefty and Dusty (Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly), gospel singer Jearlyn Steele (as herself) and, in a star turn when the evening's radio broadcast runs six minutes short, Yolanda's brooding poetess/daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan).
The sisters do old-time country, folk and gospel with their own lyrics mixed in, the boys play guitar and sing a randy little ditty laced with dirty jokes, and Steele raises up her voice to the Lord. The last is somewhat odd in a film by Altman, who's always been gloriously hostile to religion (think of the hapless, witless Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H, or Tomlin as the adulterous gospel singer in Nashville). But there's still plenty of religious hypocrisy and banality to go around in the rest of A Prairie Home Companion.
So yes, this is a film by Robert Altman, with an ensemble cast and a hurly-burly way of telling its story. For Altman, though, it's calmer than usual, which may be the influence of time (he's 80) or of Keillor. Either way, the film is often willing to hold its focus on a character or a moment.
Just as Altman has always been a cultural critic ... his innovative canon re-evaluates the western, the musical, the murder mystery, the war movie, film noir ... so, too, has Keillor done some R&D on the tropes and clichés of his American culture. In fact, one of his radio show's recurring characters, the cheesy '40s-style private eye Guy Noir (portrayed here by Kevin Kline), narrates A Prairie Home Companion (and serves as security officer for the radio show). He's especially watchful of an intruder (Virginia Madsen) whom virtually nobody else can see: She's a blonde femme fatale in a trench coat who, it turns out, is already dead (thanks to a joke Keillor once told) ... and also a bit of a killer angel.
Although A Prairie Home Companion does have a plot ... the corporation that just bought the radio station has canceled the show, and a company axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) has come to oversee its end ... it doesn't really need one. Altman and Keillor could just as easily have staged and filmed a unique performance of the real Prairie Home Companion, or even made a documentary of the show's radio broadcast, which takes place before a live audience in a Minnesota theater.
But why do that when you can hire Streep & Companions to fake what's slightly fabricated to begin with? This concept allowed Altman to work again with Tomlin, and to team her with Streep for another union of iconography. They're lovely together, Streep with her mousy voice that trebles and twangs now and then, and Tomlin singing way down low. For Altman, who has always made family ... real or improvised ... a central theme in his work, this is a modest summing up and a warm reunion with an actor from his masterpiece. I only wish he'd cast someone from M*A*S*H to bring it full circle.
The movie's backstage stories are at best mildly amusing, and the framing plot with Guy Noir and the Angel is often wooden and intrusive, as are Kline and Madsen, especially compared to the rest of the cast. This movie soars when its stars (including Keillor) sing and tell stories on stage. What emerges is a wry contemplation of art and culture, love and family, and of course, life and death. These have been Altman's themes for more than 35 years, and they seem to be Keillor's as well, albeit with a drier wit.
Why, Keillor asks, is this or that joke particularly funny? Is a laugh worth dying for? Altman could never make up his mind about life, and neither can life itself: Is it wonderful or sad or melancholy or bittersweet? They bandy about these notions in A Prairie Home Companion and come up with absolutely no answers, except perhaps that it was fun to get together with friends and put on a show. The rest is up to us.