A Prairie Home Companion
A Prairie Home Companion is full of those gliding dolly shots that have become a signature of director Robert Altman’s later career. In this case, the camera slides smoothly through the backstage area of a radio variety show catching snippets of conversation. Garrison Keillor, the show’s host, tells a far-fetched lie in the deadest of deadpans about how he first got into radio. The Johnson Girls, the show’s singing sisters, struggle to be nostalgic for an awful childhood as they powder their faces. Lefty (John C. Reilly) and Dusty (Woody Harrelson), the show’s singing cowboys, express their friendship by trying to top the other’s latest insult.
Altman’s camera never hurries, but it never sits still for long either. By moving patiently from one clump of characters to the next, it stitches together an entire world, creating connections without ever forcing them. It’s a dangerous strategy, for it’s difficult to build any narrative momentum or bring the characters into focus if the camera is always on the move. And certainly Altman himself has made some mediocre movies with this approach—Prêt à Porter, Kansas City, and Dr. T and the Women.
The technique works only if the writing is sharp enough to make a deep impression in the brief time it has before the restless camera. It’s no coincidence that Altman’s best post-1978 outings, The Player and Short Cuts, were both drawn from terrific writers, Michael Tolkin and Raymond Carver respectively. A Prairie Home Companion is a superb movie because it was written by Keillor, the baby-boomer generation’s most underrated writer.
Because Keillor is best known as a radio comedian whose folksy Americana is appreciated by aunts and uncles, it’s easy to miss just how good a writer he is. But if you sit down and examine his books—or, better yet, his radio monologues—as literature, you discover that they not only evoke character and place with astonishing economy but also touch on much darker themes than commonly assumed. You realize that Keillor—not S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, or the usual East Coast suspects—is the 20th century’s truest heir of Mark Twain.
That makes him the perfect screenwriter for an Altman movie. There’s not much plot in Companion, and what plot there is is clearly farcical. A big, bad Texas corporation is buying WLT, the show’s host station, and planning to demolish the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., where the show has been for 37 years. Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), the world’s most inept private eye, is trying to undo the takeover, and the angel Asphodel (Virginia Madsen), wearing a bright white trench coat, is on hand to collect the two people who will die on this evening of the show’s last broadcast.
Keillor’s best joke is that none of the plot mechanics matter. The show goes on as a typical broadcast; no mention is made of the station’s impending doom, which takes place as scheduled. “Every show’s your last show,” Keillor shrugs. “That’s my philosophy.” “Thank you, Plato,” sneers an exasperated Rhonda Johnson (Lily Tomlin). Death is seldom in the foreground of this movie, but it’s always in the background, and it gives the jokes and songs a sharp edge.
The jokes and songs are wonderful. Kline narrates the picture in a clenched-teeth, film-noir persona and then counters it with some slapstick physical comedy worthy of Steve Martin. Dusty and Lefty deliver a talking cowboy song penned by Keillor called “Bad Jokes” that lives up to its title with one groan-inducing verse after another. Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep) betrays her roots in musical comedy by singing strongly and evoking the kind of out-to-lunch mother that might drive a teenage daughter like Lola (Lindsay Lohan) to fill notebooks full of suicide poetry.
Robert Altman is 81 and it’s not clear how many more movies he has in him (the insurance company insisted that Paul Thomas Anderson be on the set as a back-up director if needed). Whether or not it’s his last movie, A Prairie Home Companion counts as one of his greatest triumphs. Beneath its misleading surface of corny jokes and episodic vignettes is a parable about growing old gracefully in the face of death. That’s just what Altman is doing.