A Prairie Home Companion

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Garrison Keillor, story by Keillor and Ken Lazebnik

With Keillor, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, Maya Rudolph, Virginia Madsen, Marylouise Burke, L.Q. Jones, Sue Scott, and Tommy Lee Jones

To judge from a handful of early reviews, Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion is sure to receive, if not an aviator’s welcome, then at least The Aviator‘s welcome. Like that movie’s director, Martin Scorsese, Altman has established himself as one of the great American filmmakers without ever winning an Oscar for best direction (in March the Academy sheepishly called him to the stage for a lifetime achievement award). As a result critics are inclined to root for him whenever he delivers another feature, and the growing reverence for him has begun to obscure the merits of his individual films. This is good news for Altman, whose movies are notoriously inconsistent, and for A Prairie Home Companion, which is good-humored and enormously entertaining but also sentimental and a little dishonest.

It’s also guaranteed a warm reception because the octogenarian Altman, who’s on his 39th feature and his second heart, seems to be making some sort of valedictory statement. He approached Garrison Keillor with the idea of adapting Keillor’s Saturday-night radio revue to the big screen, and the result, a backstage comedy with wall-to-wall country-and-western music, immediately calls to mind Altman’s masterpiece, Nashville (1975). It takes place at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul during the fictional last performance of the show, which has been canceled by the Texas media conglomerate that broadcasts it. From the opening credit sequence, a landscape of a radio tower against deepening twilight, the movie is preoccupied with death—the death of radio, of regional culture, of one of the company members, and, one might conclude, of Altman himself.

Keillor wrote the script under Altman’s supervision, and the collaboration between them is one of the more fascinating of the director’s career. Altman is famously cavalier toward his screenwriters, discarding their dialogue, giving his talented actors free rein to improvise, and revising the story in the editing room. Yet there’s no denying that a writer with a vision brings out the best in him, whether it’s Raymond Chandler (The Long Goodbye), Raymond Carver (Short Cuts), or even Garry Trudeau (Tanner ’88). Keillor has been writing and performing in his radio show since 1974, and the movie is full of his easygoing nostalgia and dry Minnesota humor. By his own account, he was pretty flexible (he completely rewrote one of Lindsay Lohan’s scenes after she asked, “You aren’t going to make me say all that, are you?”). And as G.K., the show’s emcee, he proves a magnetic screen presence as well. Being part of the show’s ensemble lets him preserve the show’s sensibility even as Altman makes the story his own.

Sometimes Keillor and Altman work at cross-purposes, but A Prairie Home Companion benefits from their shared commitment to closed communities. Keillor’s most enduring creation is Lake Wobegon, a mythical small town in the tradition of Thornton Wilder and Sherwood Anderson. Altman has directed movies about individuals, but his most characteristic and influential works have been sweeping character mosaics that traced the intertwining relationships of complex social systems—a military hospital (M*A*S*H), a lawless frontier town (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), modern-day Hollywood (The Player), an English country home (Gosford Park). The radio show’s cast and crew are ideal material for Altman, and their backstage interplay is frequently sublime, as fluid and funny as anything in his 70s features.

Fine examples abound: barely ten minutes in there’s an extended scene in which the musical duo Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) pepper Keillor with questions about old-time radio while the long-suffering assistant stage manager (Maya Rudolph) keeps trying to pull him out of the conversation so he won’t miss his fast-approaching stage cue. Altman is a master of verbal polyrhythm, negotiating between two or even three conversations in a single space, and the scene has a musical dexterity rivaling anything the house band plays onstage. But for sheer craft nothing beats the frequent dressing-room colloquies of Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep as another singing duo, Rhonda and Yolanda Johnson, attended by Lohan as Streep’s gloomy teenage daughter. Their ruminations range from their mother’s death to their bad life decisions to dogs that bark in key, and their give-and-take is enhanced to the point of lyricism by Altman’s lazy pans and adroit use of makeup mirrors to create frames within the frame.

The buoyant American music featured in Keillor’s radio show becomes an important part of the story, and though A Prairie Home Companion pales in comparison to Nashville in almost every respect, its dramatic use of music is more mature. Altman’s 70s features are still strikingly acid, and in Nashville the characters’ shortcomings are often mercilessly exposed by their songs: Tom Frank’s callow “I’m Easy,” Haven Hamilton’s falsely pious “For the Sake of the Children,” Sueleen Gay’s painfully tone-deaf “One, I Love You.” A Prairie Home Companion is disarmingly sweet, and the songs tend to be duets that deepen the characters’ relationships. Rhonda and Yolanda share a lovely spiritual, “Goodbye to My Mama,” and Dusty and Lefty, defying the stage manager’s edict to keep it clean, bring down the house with the bawdy “Bad Jokes.” Yolanda is still smarting from a failed romance with G.K., a conflict that plays out almost entirely onstage in their two vocal duets. Music means something different here; it’s not an individual’s ticket to fame and fortune but part of the community fabric.

The creative duet between Altman and Keillor grows less harmonious as Altman tries to integrate three fanciful characters into the story. None of them has any dramatic purpose except to drive the plot and hold up the shapeless melange of backstage intrigue, and their functional nature becomes increasingly awkward. The hard-boiled Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a mainstay of Keillor’s radio stories, serves as the show’s security man, but his real job is to wander around and supply expository voice-over. Kline beefs up the role with some expert physical comedy—he even wrings some laughs out of that old telephone bit in which the speaker doesn’t realize his listener is in the room—but Virginia Madsen can’t do anything with the portentous dialogue of the Dangerous Woman, another Keillor standby, who in this context turns out to be the angel of death.

Most grating of all is the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), a hard-nosed executive from Texas whose late arrival at the theater initiates the final act. Sent by the corporation to preside over the show’s death, he sits in a glass booth overlooking the house and airily dismisses the performance as a cultural anachronism. When Noir, who’s been sent to keep an eye on him, points out that the company members have put their lives into the show, the Axeman scoffs, “They can put their lives into something else.” Just in case we’ve missed the point that he’s a philistine, he glances at a bust of F. Scott Fitzgerald and asks, “Who’s that?” A cartoon villain, he’s intent on axing not just the program but the whole idea of old-time narrative radio. As the company’s makeup artist (Sue Scott) remarks, “There won’t be anything left on the radio but people yelling at you and computers playing music.”

I have no doubt Keillor feels this way, and Altman, who grew up during the golden age of radio, must share the sentiment. But Altman—who’s directed television shows, movies, stage plays, and even opera—has never worked in radio, and his films have gone a long way toward making radio drama seem anachronistic. Radio has always focused on a single, controlling voice, the sort of authoritative baritone Keillor uses to conjure up the people and places of his fiction. Even amid the chaos of a modern radio talk show, there’s a governing personality, be it Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern, someone whose voice provides an aural hook for the listener. When sound came to the movies in the late 20s filmmakers translated that authority to the screen as the voice-over narrator, an omniscient speaker who frequently took over the storytelling chores images would have performed in the silent era.

The voice-over has survived in movies because it’s such an easy device. But good screenwriters tend to consider it a crutch, and few filmmakers have done more to discredit it than Altman, whose major stylistic innovation has been telling a story through the characters’ overlapping dialogue. In the 70s he used individual microphones to capture each actor’s voice and mixed those voices up and down in the sound track to create a fictional world in sync with contemporary America, at a time when the common purpose of the Depression and war years was breaking down into a cacophony of competing realities. When some of his 70s movies came out they were indecipherable to traditional moviegoers—the sort of people who might retreat to the quiet simplicity of Lake Wobegon—but they had a huge influence on young indie filmmakers, who embraced Altman’s ethic of multiple story lines and multiple voices. It’s all very well for him to mourn the death of old-time radio, but he put a few nails in the coffin himself. v