How appropriate that Robert Altman should follow his honorary Oscar with a film like “A Prairie Home Companion.” Career achievement awards usually invite a sanctification of a body of work and a sensibility, and “Prairie Home” is itself a kind of grand summary: there’s something quintessentially Altmanesque in its sprawling cast of characters, its regional and musical milieu, the overlapping dialogue, and the wandering, zooming camera, and the film’s preoccupation with death and the passage of time that feels grand and conclusive. But “A Prairie Home Companion” is also a kind of rejoinder to this brand of late-career sanctification. When great directors are feted for the entirety of their oeuvre, the rough edges are often smoothed over, the missteps ignored–how about the conspicuous absence of “Dr. T. and the Women” from that Oscar clip reel? anyone?–and the work itself sanitized, stripped of its lowbrow trappings as it is elevated to the level of great cinematic art. Surely, Robert Altman is a great artist, and “A Prairie Home Companion” is a lovely piece of cinema, but it is also bawdy and crass, messy and brimming with life. It is, in short, perfectly Altmanesque in every sense of the word.
“A Prairie Home Companion” is a sort of backstage musical, following the final performance of a fictionalized version of Garrison Keillor‘s radio show. Keillor is the show’s master of ceremonies and the film’s center of gravity. He refuses to acknowledge the show’s imminent demise–the other performers beg him for at least a moment of silence; “A moment of silence on the radio,” he protests, “I don’t know how that works.” So the show goes on with nary a trace of the dead air to follow. Lefty (John C. Reilly) and Dusty (Woody Harrelson), two singing cowboys, pay amusingly tacky musical homage to bad jokes. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin offer a more spiritual and earnest counterpoint as Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, sisters who have spent their whole lives singing together. Keillor’s dry wit keeps the show moving briskly along between numbers, while its cast of performers plummet headfirst into the great unknown with smiles all around.
Screenwriter Keillor, who adapted the story from his radio show with Ken LaZebnick, has concocted some more serious goings-on backstage, where one character dies suddenly and a so-called Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen) arrives under ambiguous circumstances. Madsen looks grave and beautiful, dressed in white from head to toe, and she moves and speaks with measure and portent. She is mannered and effective, the literal embodiment of the film’s silliness and import; she is the shadow of death, the threat of loss that hangs over every happy moment and every stupid joke. The film turns between these extremes she embodies on a dime–one moment, Altman lingers on Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) bumbling after Madsen or farting uncontrollably or Yolanda and Rhonda riffing on their shoplifting sister; the next, the seething resentment of a jilted lover bubbles to the surface, while talk of suicide or a fatal car crash punctuates the airy banter. There’s a resulting schizophrenia to the film that doesn’t always work: Kline, for example, sometimes veers too far towards slapstick, and though we’re supposed to take her somewhat seriously, Lindsay Lohan is disastrously miscast as Yolanda’s daughter Lola. But this schizophrenia is largely the point–like the good Midwesterners they are, these characters all know that joy and suffering are both a part of each and every day God has given, and the actors who play them capture this sense of balance without a trace of skepticism or pandering (and though it’s almost boring, at this point, to single out Meryl Streep, she remains peerless, even in this fine company).
Though Altman often has been accused of condescension in previous films, “A Prairie Home Companion” has an enveloping sweetness and gentleness, and with the help of cinematographer Edward Lachman (“Far From Heaven“), Altman achieves a visual texture that lulls us further into its embrace. The film is bathed in rich, vivid color and sharp, crisp shadows. The camera navigates the space of the theater with expert grace. It’s immediately clear that we’re in the hands of a master at the very height of his craft; all that’s left for us to do is to give ourselves to it. The first time we see Madsen, she descends the stairs wordlessly, an ephemeral and haunting vision, beautiful, enchanting, and terrifying. Whatever “Prairie Home”‘s messiness and sprawl, this is a film rich with images such as these, so delicately composed that we feel like we could touch them, even as they seem to be slipping just out of reach.
But everything does indeed slip away. “A Prairie Home Companion” is preoccupied with this slow march of time and the inevitability of death. Still, it’s certainly one of the most raucous and hopeful films about death I’ve ever seen. It’s at once delightful and melancholy, joyous and wistful. Altman may have summarized it best himself in a recent Q&A appearance in New York, when he admitted, without giving anything away, in “A Prairie Home Companion” “everybody dies, but they sing…and they’re happy.”
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, and has written for Interview and Publishers Weekly.]
Take 2 By Kristi Mitsuda
Not one to worship at the altar of Altman (the hyperbolic regard of whom I find a bit overzealous at times), I went into “A Prairie Home Companion” defiantly armed with a ready Armond White-ish contrarianism. From the start, an eccentric tonal discordance in the set-up both aggravates and compels as an anachronistic Guy Noir speaks in a hard-boiled manner so tongue-in-cheek it hurts to see his interactions with the usual Altman ensemble of contemporary oddballs. The constructed “movieness” of the private eye juxtaposed with the naturalism of that patented whirl of overlapping dialogue and ongoing action infuses the film with a strangely heightened aura that makes for curious viewing.
This otherworldly weirdness gets compounded by the arrival of Virginia Madsen as the classic hottie in a trench coat and heels, a red-herring of a femme fatale walking just a bit too stiltedly and ironically to be the real thing, a suspicion soon confirmed by the “revelation” of her more ethereal nature. The structuring contrivance, though, and its off-putting cutesiness, seems far too inelegantly clunky a frame upon which to hang what otherwise is a sinuous and wildly entertaining portrait of a radio show on the nostalgia-laden eve of its demise.
In fairness to the film, I’ve never listened to any of the actual broadcasts created by Garrison Keillor (here playing an interpretation of himself based on his own screenplay), and am surely missing out on playful in-jokes and a possibly clarifying layering of fiction and reality. Still, even despite my predisposition towards displeasure and discomfort with its dramatic constructs, I found myself gradually if incompletely won over, in part due to the brilliance of Maya Rudolph‘s hilariously blase facial reactions but mostly because of the committed energy and beauty of the performances, notably that of Streep’s eternally tearful and golden-throated Yolanda. “A Prairie Home Companion” may not possess within its slightness the capacity for longevity of Altman’s other musically centered piece, “Nashville” (a singularly soulful film within the director’s oeuvre), but it extraordinarily transmits the infectious thrill of both live theater and music to the audience via celluloid; an ode to survival and joy-taking even in the face of the angel of death, only a seasoned grinch could deny its toe-tapping, giddy-making abilities.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]
Take 3 By Adam Nayman
Thirty-seven years after helping to bring down Pike Bishop and co., L.Q. Jones gets to die a deeply symbolic death in another elegy for a bygone era. Superficially, Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion” has very little in common with Sam Peckinpah‘s “The Wild Bunch,” but they’re essentially the same story: a tightly-knit band of professionals face down extinction. There are even a few gunfighters in Altman’s posse: the singing cowboys played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly represent a sort of gentle Peckinpah pastiche. The same goes for Jones’s character, an aged crooner who dies in the moments after rasping out one last old standard. “A Prairie Home Companion” is a film about farewells: we’re informed by our comically hard-boiled narrator (Kevin Kline) – another walking anachronism – that what we’re watching is the story of the final broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s venerable radio variety show “A Prairie Home Companion.” After learning of Jones’s death, Keillor (who plays himself, quite unflatteringly, as a glib tyrant) announces in the callous tradition of his trade that the show must go on. But who is he kidding? This is Closing Night, and everybody knows it. And yet “A Prairie Home Companion” is not some heavy-hearted lament: it’s a comedy, and a nimble one at that. In a great bit of casting, it’s Lindsay Lohan (as the daughter of the veteran chanteuse played by Meryl Streep) who gets to sing the final song of the broadcast: stumbling over the lyrics to an ancient my-boyfriend-is-a-bastard ditty, she nervously inserts some of her own words (she’s a bookish, vintage tee-wearing poet, contemporary in every way) and wins over the staunchly traditional studio audience. It’d be grimly appropriate if Lohan the pert MTV drone were sounding a death knell for old-time music, but Altman’s film is slyer than that – the suggestion is that the gulf between past and present is navigable after all. That kind of optimism precludes a blaze-of-glory standoff: it may hurt a bit, but our guitar-slinging heroes – call them the mild bunch – recognize that to cling too strongly to the past is a kind of rigor mortis.
[Adam Nayman, a Reverse Shot staff writer, reviews films in Toronto for eye Weekly. He has also contributed articles to Saturday Night, Cinema Scope, Montage, and POV.]