Death Is on the Air

Washington City Paper | June 16, 2006
A Prairie Home Companion was created for—and by—the kind of people who still appreciate the olde-fashioned longing in lyrics such as “Come and sit by my side if you love me/Do not hasten to bid me adieu.” That couplet, from trad-folk number “Red River Valley,” closes the film, a reflection on nostalgia and the end of things beloved written by Garrison Keillor and directed by Robert Altman. From the former, you’d expect as much. From the latter, you have to wonder: Is this a part of the American experience he really needs to be bothering with?

Based on Keillor’s identically titled and, at 31 years, still-running NPR program, the loose narrative involves the final episode of a modern-day radio variety show, touching on soured love affairs and unspooling a significant subplot about death. It’s impossible not to consider that this may be the 81-year-old Altman’s swan song, as well—Paul Thomas Anderson was, somewhat morbidly, contracted as a backup director. It’s also impossible not to imagine that the film seems so resonant partly because its themes have been running through the legend’s head for a while now—that he has, in fact, good reason to be bothering. “Every show is your last show—that’s my philosophy,” intones compulsive yarn-teller Keillor when a disbeliever blurts that this can’t really be the end.

Indeed, the easily distracted G.K., as the self-portraying Keillor is nicknamed here, is unflappably matter-of-fact about the death of his show—and, later, the death of a performer—especially among the largely cooing cast and crew. Among the sentimental are the Lunch Lady (Marylouise Burke), who laments that she’s never going to see anyone again; sister act Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), who go on (and on) about the old times with the rest of their family, as Yolanda’s uninterested daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan, stepping up to the task) scribbles poems about suicide in her notebook; and hairdresser Donna (Sue Scott), who complains that without the program, radio will have officially gone to hell. Given the circumstances, Donna might as well be talking about society in general: The station that broadcasts the Companion, formerly family-run, has been bought by a corporation (represented by Tommy Lee Jones as hatchet man Axeman). The company plans to tear down Minnesota’s Fitzgerald Theater—where Keillor’s real show is performed—to make way for a parking lot.

A Prairie Home Companion’s real message, however, isn’t that no one is promised another sunrise. It’s that endings ought not to be merely grieved but also welcomed as opportunities to remember the good times the expired person/job/activity provided. Maudlin? Maybe. But the film confines the sorrow to the backstage as, out front, we get a nearly real-time episode of the show. The performances, heavy on banjo-driven, Carter Family–style music and backed by Keillor’s own band, are jubilant, including the one by Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), a singing-cowboy duo who giddily exchange terrible jokes while strumming their guitars. G.K. is impressive both for his banter, which includes between-song ads (the best is a rapturous ad-lib for duct tape), and for the seeming effortlessness with which he keeps the show moving regardless of what’s going on around him.

Much of the film is classic Altman, including a camera that flows through walls and even a ceiling and conversations that overlap—though at times to a hair-pulling degree, especially between Yolanda and Lola, with Streep and Tomlin replicating their irritating version of the directorial trademark from this year’s Oscars. More successful is Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, a ’40s-style gumshoe complete with sharp suit and sharper dialogue who’s an imaginary character on the real PHC. Here, he’s a klutzy security guard with private-dick pretensions. His biggest oops is losing track of Dangerous Woman, who drifts around the staging area in a white trench coat. Played by Virginia Madsen, the character is initially more ponderous than mysterious, slowly delivering such eye-rolling lines as “Every sparrow is remembered.” She’s somewhat redeemed, however, when her reason for showing up is revealed and she tries to reverse the show’s prospects with a shocking yet arguably merited bit of advice to one of the characters.

A Prairie Home Companion is an imperfect meditation, to be sure, but it’s also an exuberant one. It shouldn’t seem this fun. The film’s great achievement is that it makes you face the gloomiest facts of life head-on—and then lets you walk out with a smile. As swan songs go, it could be a lot worse.

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