The latest film from octogenarian master Robert Altman, A Prairie Home Companion is quite similar to Altman's previous film, the underrated 2003 ballet drama The Company, where Altman integrated professional actors and a fictional story into a real performance company, the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. A Prairie Home Companion is another blend of fact and fiction: Altman's perhaps more widely known co-conspirator Garrison Keillor -- creator of the popular public radio program that gives the film its title -- plays himself and wrote the screenplay.
By way of confession I should say that I attended college in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the film is set and from where Keillor's ostensibly homespun program is broadcast. I have eaten many a meal at Mickey's, the self-consciously classic diner that plays a small but crucial role in the film. Once, as a first-year student, I was dragged to a live performance of "A Prairie Home Companion," an experience I don't remember well. Since then, I've wandered across it on the radio a few times and have been even more actively annoyed by it than I generally am with the stuffy, self-regarding tastefulness of public radio.
So, no Keillor fan, A Prairie Home Companion is a Robert Altman movie to me and a rewarding if flawed one.
Altman and Keillor's joint conceit is that the film documents a fictional final broadcast of the live radio variety show "A Prairie Home Companion" before a corporate buyout silences Keillor's company for good.
"There won't be anyone left on the radio but guys yelling at you and computers playing music," a "Prairie Home" employee grouses backstage, and her despair is easy to read as a comment on filmmaking as well. But to the degree that A Prairie Home Companion is a response to a passing age in moviemaking, it's a far gentler, more resigned, and more bemused one than its unlikely companion piece, Altman's caustic 1992 satire The Player.
Instead of expressing anger about the corporatization of film culture, Altman, at 81, seems almost serene. And this ostensible elegy for a passing form becomes more reverie when it lingers backstage or down in the bows.
The film is far from perfect. Using Kevin Kline as a hard-boiled theater security chief and Virginia Madsen as an angel ("guardian" or "of death" isn't exactly clear) results in a flat, awkward, unrealized framing device. But as long as Altman's floating, penetrating camera stays close to the show itself -- onstage and, even more gloriously, off -- A Prairie Home Companion is a charmer. More charming, certainly, than its source material.
Keillor is an Altman stand-in, but he's also very much himself, and both men deserve tremendous credit for the way these two authors dissolve into one. But the real treat is the company of players and technicians that hover around Keillor's epicenter.
There's Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as a pair of singing cowboys with a taste for risqué but corny jokes. ("Liquor, she said. And lick her I did," goes the punchline of one.) There's a lovely late-life romance between a rascally cowpoke singer (L.Q. Jones) and a worrisome lunch lady (Marylousie Burke). Maya Rudolph brings just enough sourness to her small role as a perpetually put-upon and very pregnant production assistant.
But best of all is the hen-house dynamic between Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as a folk-singing sister act (think of a cross between the Carter Family and the McGarrigle sisters). Rejuvenated Lindsay Lohan is Streep's luminescent but very ordinary daughter, scribbling poetry about suicide and rolling her eyes at her sentimental mother.
Streep has been nominated for 13 Oscars, but I don't know if she's ever been as enjoyable or as modestly sexy as she is here or as well-paired as she is with Altman-vet Tomlin (Nashville, Short Cuts).
With little focus on what's happening in the audience, much less outside the theater, A Prairie Home Companion rhymes emotionally, visually, and thematically with another recent cinematic elegy, Neil Young: Heart of Gold. That film was from another aging artist who hit his stride in the '70s, went wayward in the '80s, and experienced an artistic rebirth in the '90s. Both are, in one way or another, handsomely shot concert films about the intimacy of collective performance -- films that confront mortality while shrugging off significance.
"You don't want anyone to remember you?" one program staffer asks of Keillor's reluctance to make any big speeches for this final show. "I don't want anyone to be told to remember me," Keillor says.
It seems like a sage thought, but maybe I'm too young to embrace it. Coming out of a screening last week of A Prairie Home Companion, I couldn't help thinking about the latest dumb movie list being treated as a news item -- the Bravo network's "100 Funniest Movies." Altman is included with his still-hysterical '70s spitball M*A*S*H, but most of American film culture is banished. Not just sure shots like the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and all the great screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s but literally every single movie made before 1960 and nearly everything made before 1970. It's as if the majority of our film culture never existed. Listening to people talk about the list, on sports-talk stations and in small gatherings, no one seemed to notice. Certainly, the list's perspective is no aberration. Like the style of radio in A Prairie Home Companion, the classical American filmmaking that Altman -- actually a TV veteran and disrupter of the old studio system -- now represents is in danger of being made obsolete by technology and corporate marketing. It would seem people have to be told to remember.
But Altman is no longer interested in lectures or pleas. He'd rather bring his players out for one more unsentimental song.