It is difficult now to watch A Prairie Home Companion without seeing in it presentiments of Robert Altman’s death. Undoubtedly he brought to the film his own sense of impending mortality, his awareness of his own cancer, but he did not believe it would be his last film and was at work on another at the time of his death. Critical reaction to A Prairie Home Companion was fairly positive, and this may have represented a sentimental desire to pay homage to the aging director. The film is entertaining and full of the animated randomness and humanity that is characteristic of Altman’s best films, but this one is not among his best, though it’s certainly noteworthy.
A Prairie Home Companion follows in what appears to be real time the last installment of a long-time radio show in Wisconsin or, judging by the accents, some state nearby. The theater that hosted the show for years is closing down and slated to be razed and replaced by a parking lot. The radio show must close with it. A detached and cold Tommy Lee Jones plays a representative of the corporate entity responsible for this turn of events. He appears on the scene to watch the show with no evidence of emotion—he remains unmoved; the bottom line for him is the only line.
The radio show in the film is, not surprisingly, much like the one that Garrison Keillor hosts every week on National Public Radio. Keillor plays a character like himself, a character bearing his own initials “G. K.” but who is, one hopes (though genial enough, he is surprisingly indifferent and lacking in sentiment), also distinct from the real Keillor. (Keillor wrote the screenplay). The film is narrated from the point of view of Guy Noir, the fictional detective featured on the NPR radio show.
There is a randomness to this film that seems unfocused and random even for Robert Altman. What focus there is comes from the radio show itself and its limited cast of performers. The scenes switch from one set of characters to another—the Johnson Sisters (played by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) who have performed together for years as the last surviving members of a larger group of family performers; Dusty and Lefty, two quarrelsome cowhands played by Woody Harrelson and John Reilly)—and we overhear them both as they react to news of the end of their radio show and as they continue to work through conflicts that have been going on for literal decades. There is thus both a sense that we are viewing a film in the middle of things as well as a film about endings. (Altman’s films often give a brilliant sense of beginning and functioning in medias res). These actors are excellent in their roles, especially Tomlin and Streep. Lindsay Lohan is good as the daughter of Streep’s character. She gets her first chance to perform on the last radio show—she loses the lyrics and has to make them up as she goes. The various characters talk about continuing to perform after the show ends, but there is a strong implication in the film that the radio show itself if the last of its kind. It’s an outmoded, outdated form of entertainment, and one can imagine that there will be few if any venues for its performers once the show has ended.
One sign of the randomness that characterizes the film is the appearance of a character named Asphodel, played by Virginia Madsen. She is dressed in a white raincoat and moves in a beatific, distracted, desultory fashion through the film. Only Guy Noir can see her (why only he can see her is not explained). She is the angel of death who has come to escort one of the performers into the afterlife. He is a minor character, but his death underlines the eulogistic tone of the film and gives the characters something else to feel sad and wistful about. In general the film seems to express nostalgia and regret over the passing of an era, over the onslaught of a new era of impersonality where the characters of the radio show, not to mention the show itself, lack identity or relevance or any meaningful function.
Keillor’s character declines to acknowledge the performer’s death or the end of the radio show on the air. He says that radio is all about what is going to happen, not about the past. Keillor is very good in his role, but exasperating. He’s difficult to figure.
This film would work at least as well as it does without the distracting and illogical presence of the angel of death. At most she invests the film with a metaphysical, supernatural dimension, suggesting that the end of a radio show is part of a cycle of life and death that characterizes all of creation.
Altman was at his best in films such as Mash, Nashville, The Player, and Gosford Park. There his inclination towards chaos and randomness was reigned in by a strong script or literary source whose narrative held him creatively in check. In A Prairie Home Companion he depends on an array of eccentric and likeable characters and the pathos inherent in the end of a longstanding tradition to provide the anchor, and it doesn’t consistently work.
Robert Altman was a truly great and unique director. Even his unsuccessful films are interesting. A Prairie Home Companion is not a failure. It is just not a great film, certainly not one that approaches the artistry and genius in Nashville, one of the greatest of American films.
Nonetheless, A Prairie Home Companion is interesting and entertaining. And now that Altman is dead, it is filled with poignancy.